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Children & Backpacks

by Alyson Lamothe Sorenson, PT

JanSport®, The North Face®, Kipling®. These are just a few brands of backpacks kids and parents choose from before school begins every year. Surprisingly, this decision is becoming more and more important as the prevalence of children with back pain is growing.

Girl_Backpack_LR.jpgAs a physical therapist, I see many people each day complaining of low back pain. Unfortunately some of these clients are children from 7-15 years of age. There are many factors that can contribute to back pain. Posture and inactivity play an important role, and if your child’s backpack is too heavy, this can contribute to their already poor body awareness. Researchers from APTA (American Physical Therapy Association) say your child’s backpack should not be more than 10-15% of their body weight. They also have guidelines on proper usage and wearing of backpacks:

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. By wearing both shoulder straps, the weight of the pack is better distributed, and a symmetrical posture is promoted. A backpack that has padded, contoured shoulder straps will also help reduce pressure on the chest and shoulders.

Make sure the backpack fits. It is important to pay close attention to the way a backpack is positioned on the back, and the size of the backpack should match the size of the child. Shoulder straps should fit comfortably on the shoulder and under the arms, so that the arms can move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest in the contour of the lower back. This is where the heavier books should be placed, closer to the child’s back. The pack should “sit” evenly in the middle of the back, not “sag down” toward the buttocks.

Another commonly asked question is if a child should use a rolling backpack. This is a possibility if your child does not go to a school with a second or third story. We can’t expect them to carry a load up the stairs by hand. Another alternative is to get an extra set of books: one to keep at home, and one for school.

Physical therapy can help a child who is experiencing back pain, but we never want it to get that far. We want to prevent this back pain from becoming so bad that he or she requires a visit to physical therapy. That is why keeping active is so important. We need to watch how much time our children spend watching TV or playing video games. Take home message — Keep your children safe, healthy and pain free!

Physical therapists recommend the following features when selecting a backpack:

  • A padded back to reduce pressure on the back and prevent the pack’s contents from digging into the child’s back
  • A waist belt to help distribute some of the load to the pelvis
  • Compression straps on the sides or bottom of the backpack that, when tightened, compress the contents of the backpack and stabilize the articles
  • Reflective material so that the child is visible to drivers at night

Alyson Lamothe Sorensen is a Licensed Physical Therapist and a member of the American Physical Therapy Association. She attended University of Vermont and trained at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Vermont. Alyson specializes in spine wellness with an emphasis on low back and neck and postural wellness. She has been with Sansum Clinic since 2004 and sees patients at our Physical Therapy Center at 41 Hitchcock Way.


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