School Bags: Keep Your Child’s Back Healthy

School bags can cause back pain and damage the spine in children. Reduce the risk by buying an appropriate size backpack and making sure the bag is not too heavy.

As the spine is growing and developing it is vitally important to address spinal health issues for a number of reasons. Firstly, to prevent spinal stress and dysfunction that causes pain, which may affect study and participation in sport and recreation. Secondly, to develop good techniques for spinal health that will carry through into adulthood.

Ensuring that your child is carrying a safe load to and from school is a good way to begin addressing their spinal health. A recent study reported that the weight of the average backpack is heavier, proportionally, than the legal load-bearing limit for adults. Around 70 per cent of Australian school children may suffer back pain from carrying heavy or incorrectly fitted school bags. For example, a heavy bag that’s slung over one shoulder can, over the 12 years of schooling, cause chronic back problems that linger into adulthood.

Risks include muscle strain, distortion of the natural ‘S’ curve of the spine and rounding of the shoulders. Parents can reduce the risk in many ways, such as buying the child an appropriately sized backpack and making sure the load isn’t too heavy.

School bag risk factors

Risk factors for back pain include:

  • A school bag that weighs more than 10 per cent of the child’s weight.
  • Holding the bag in one hand by its straps.
  • Carrying the bag over one shoulder.
  • An incorrectly packed backpack.
  • An incorrectly fitted backpack.

Ways to reduce the risk

Risk reduction strategies include:

  • Buy the right kind of backpack.
  • Make sure it is packed correctly.
  • Show your child correct lifting and carrying techniques.

Buying the right kind of backpack

Your child should have a backpack, rather than a traditional school bag with handles. Suggestions include:

  • Look for a backpack endorsed by an Australian professional organisation, such as the Australian Physiotherapy Association.
  • Don’t try to save money by buying the biggest backpack you can find – make sure the backpack is appropriate to your child’s size.
  • Choose a backpack with a moulded frame and/or adjustable hip strap, so that the weight of the filled backpack will rest on your child’s pelvis instead of their shoulders and spine.
  • The shoulder straps should be adjustable, and the rear of the backpack padded for comfort.
  • To help with packing, the backpack should ideally have a few separate compartments.
  • Canvas backpacks are lighter than leather backpacks.
  • Children are fashion conscious and vulnerable to peer pressure, so make sure you take your child with you when buying their backpack. If the style you choose is ‘uncool’, your child may compensate by carrying the backpack in a ‘cool’ way, such as over one shoulder.

Make sure the backpack is packed correctly

Suggestions include:

  • The backpack should weigh less than 10 per cent of your child’s body weight – for example, a child of 40kg should carry less than 4kg in their backpack. Ideally, the child in this example should only carry around 2–3kg of books.
  • Pack the heaviest items so they are closest to the child’s back. If the heaviest items are packed further away, this throws out the child’s centre of gravity and causes unnecessary back strain.
  • Make sure that items can’t move around during transit, as this could upset your child’s centre of gravity – use the backpack’s compartments.

Correct lifting and carrying techniques

Suggestions include:

  • Adjust the shoulder straps so that the bottom of the backpack is just above the child’s waist – don’t allow them to wear the backpack slung low over their buttocks.
  • When fitted correctly, the backpack should contour snugly to the child’s back, rather than hang off their shoulders.
  • If your child has to lean over, their backpack is too heavy, incorrectly fitted or wrongly packed.
  • Make sure your child understands that carrying the backpack over one shoulder will cause back pain and potential injury.

Other suggestions

Other ways to reduce the load carried by your child include:

  • Encourage your child to store books in their school locker if available, and only bring home those needed for homework.
  • If your child insists they need to bring home more books than they can comfortably carry, see their teacher.
  • Regularly clean out the backpack, since your child may be storing unneeded items.
  • Regularly ask your child if their backpack is causing fatigue or pain. If so, lighten the load and adjust the fittings.

For more information regarding ways to keep your child’s back and posture healthy or if your child complains of back pain contact one of the physiotherapists at Jubilee Sports Physiotherapy.

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