Going back to school may make children feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. After they pile their lunch, binders, books and extracurricular gear into their backpacks, the amount of weight that children lug around daily could be potentially dangerous.
Does your child complain of neck pain or tingling fingers? Does your child lean forward a lot? A heavy backpack may create poor posture, causing neck and back pain and tingling in the fingers. While numbness in the fingers is not as common as neck pain, nerve damage may occur under the straps. If the backpack is very heavy and the straps are too tight, nerves in the upper shoulder, called the brachial plexus, may be compressed. Tingling and numbness around the area and into the arms are symptoms of this condition, and must be treated immediately.
If you notice your child’s posture has changed, a heavy backpack could lead to functional scoliosis. While it is not permanent, it may be caused by muscle imbalances, i.e., shortening of certain structures and lengthening of others, creating added stress to the back and neck. If your child has been diagnosed with structural scoliosis, this may be aggravated by a heavy backpack, and it should be addressed.
A child’s frame size and weight also contribute to potential neck and shoulder injuries. A small framed child may start to lean forward to compensate for the weight of the backpack, to prevent falling over, while overweight children now have increased weight on their muscles and bones, which may cause neck pain.
First and foremost, you should educate yourselves on proper backpack use and know how to determine when they are too heavy. Then, communicate this to your children. If your children experience pain when carrying their backpacks, they need to let you know. Many children don’t understand that carrying a very heavy backpack may cause long-term damage or increase the risk of future injury.
The second step is to reduce the load and/or have your child give their shoulders and neck a rest! If the pain doesn’t subside in a few days, seeing a doctor or a physical therapist would be the appropriate next step. A physical therapist can teach children proper stretches to improve posture and reduce pain, as well as provide strengthening exercises for the neck, shoulders, back and core, to help prevent further damage and future injuries.
Following a general fitness program helps to ensure that your child’s muscles are being strengthened and stretched appropriately. This may help prevent injury, allow for improved cardiovascular endurance, and prevent muscle fatigue.
• Wide, padded shoulder straps are important. Narrow straps can dig into a child’s shoulders and neck causing pain, potential nerve damage and decreased circulation.
• Children should always wear two shoulder straps. Wearing one places all the pressure on one shoulder and does not distribute the weight evenly.
• Make sure the straps are tight enough to hold the backpack about two inches above the child’s waist.
• Backpacks with padded backs are ideal, as they increase comfort and prevent sharp edges of items in the backpack from digging into your child’s back.
• Consider a rolling backpack for students who cannot lighten the load or encourage them to place items in a locker. However, if they need to lift the backpack up and down stairs, it should be lifted from the legs, making sure not to twist from the back.
• The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a backpack weighs no more than 10 to 20 percent of the child’s weight, but closer to 10 percent is best.
• When packing your child’s backpack, be sure to include only what is needed for that day.
If you are not sure if your child’s backpack is too heavy, consult a physician or physical therapist for additional information.
Melanie Strassberg is a Physical Therapist with Professional Physical Therapy located in Mamaroneck, N.Y. profe