July 22, 2005
Forget what's trendy, physical therapist urges backpack uses to focus on safety
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
FLOWOOD, Miss.—When kids shop for backpacks, they’re mainly interested in their coolness quotient. No one wants to lug something that is soooo last year.
But physical therapists say backpack users would be better off to forget what’s trendy and focus on safety. A backpack that doesn’t fit properly or is too heavy can lead to injury.
“One problem with backpacks is they often lead kids to arch their backs or lean forward or sideways,” said physical therapist Joe Jacobson, director of Methodist Outpatient Rehabilitation in Flowood, a division of Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson. “These harmful postures can cause spinal compression, improper alignment and disc problems.”
Jacobson said shoppers should look for backpacks that have padded and contoured shoulder straps and a waist belt.
“The straps help reduce pressure on the chest and shoulders and the waist belt helps distribute some of the load to the pelvis,” he said. “I would also recommend a compression strap to hold down articles in your backpack so you’re not knocked off balance by shifting weight.”
Once you find a backpack with the right features, Jacobson recommends taking time to get a proper fit. According to Backpack Safety America/International, a backpack should cover 75 percent of the length of your back, roughly the space between your shoulder blades and waist.
Jacobson said children should not carry backpack loads heavier than 15 percent of their body weight. “Overpacking the bag is dangerous because it can strain and fatigue muscles and soft tissue leaving kids more vulnerable to injury. It also can compress nerves in the shoulders and arms.”
Signs that your backpack load should be lightened include red marks on the shoulders, back pain and numbness in the arms.
Other tips for safe backpack use from Jacobson and the American Physical Therapy Association:
- Wear both straps. Using only one strap, even with backpacks that have one strap that runs across the body, causes one shoulder to bear the weight of the bag. Wearing both straps distributes the weight more evenly.
- Make sure the backpack fits. Shoulder straps should rest comfortably on the shoulders and under the arms, so that the arms can move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest on the contour of the lower back. The pack should "sit" evenly in the middle of the back, not "sag down" toward the buttocks.
- Use caution with wheeled backpacks. If you choose a wheeled backpacks, physical therapists recommend that the extended handle is long enough so that you are not forced to twist and bend, and that the wheels are large enough so the backpack doesn't topple.
- Don’t let your backpack be a stumbling block. In a recent study, the vast majority of backpack injuries that required an emergency room visit were the result of someone tripping over a backpack.