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Solving the Backpack Dilemma

Nov 09, 2010 ● By Warren Bruhl

Concern about heavy backpacks has grown in recent years, as young students regularly carry laptops and heavy books to and from school. Parents are often surprised by the weight and bulk of these packs, which can cause shoulder, neck and back pain and can lead to long-term problems. To create healthy solutions, it’s important to understand how the spine develops and learn how backpacks should be loaded and carried.

Various age-related developmental milestones take place in a youngster’s spine and nervous system during their formative years. Between the ages of 5 to 9, bone is softer and more formative, growing in relation to the stress placed upon it. If uneven strain is distributed along the spine, a disruptive growth pattern occurs. Bone can thicken in the wrong zones and weaken in others. Angles may develop in the spine, forming curvatures called scoliosis, or subluxation.

The spinal column is an armor-like apparatus, shielding the spinal cord and nerve system and protecting parallel nerve, lymphatic and vascular tissues. Acting as electrical signaling lines, nerves communicate intricate messages originating in the brain to the muscles, bones, ligaments and organs. Nerves also transmit messages of pain, signals that arise when a problem requires attention. Your child’s posture can be a signal of a breakdown of this spinal system.

Children from 9 to13 moving through puberty are experiencing rapid change in bone and muscle growth, as well as vulnerable spine development. As the pelvis widens during a girl’s sexual development, joints running along the hips may be somewhat unstable and susceptible to excessive stress from a heavy backpack. Lifting the pack once or twice isn’t worrisome, but carrying it to a bus stop, riding the bus, carrying the pack off the bus and then through the halls at school is another story. Children who walk to school may incur a heavy load for an even longer duration.

How the pack is loaded and carried is important. The heaviest items should be loaded first, closer to your child’s back. Place lighter items further out to keep the load balanced. Loading the pack unevenly, with some of the heavier items moved rearward or right or left, causes additional strain.

Carrying a backpack with the upper shoulder straps loose and dangling brings the pack too low for adequate, safe support. As the pack rides lower down the back, towards the hips and buttocks, your child must thrust their head and arms forward to stay upright and walk.

A loaded backpack should weigh no more than 10 to 12 percent of your child’s weight. The pack should have secure, thickly padded shoulder straps that are at least one-and-a-half to two inches across. A hip strap is also helpful, to offload some of the weight from the shoulders onto the hips. Packs with softer padding along the contact area adjacent to your child’s spine help ease the pressure felt along the back. Various packs designed to offer safe support and protect the back are on the market; two good ones are the Posture Pack and the Air Pack.

Understanding spine development and following these guidelines can solve the backpack dilemma and help keep your child pain-free and healthy.

Dr. Warren Bruhl has practiced pediatric chiropractic medicine for 24 years and maintains a private practice at Lakefront Chiropractic Center, 630 Vernon Ave., Ste. F, in Glencoe 60022. For appointments, call 847-835-4700 or visit Bruhl is a founding member of the ICA Council on Chiropractic Pediatrics and a member of the Illinois Chiropractic Society. He is an author and has been featured on ABC News and Parenting Life. For more information about spine health in children and backpack safety, visit his clinic’s website.