By Liza Barnes, for SparkPeople
Exams. Pop quizzes. Homework. School can be a pain in the neck, figuratively. But if school is literally causing problems for your child's neck or back, his or her backpack may be to blame. Believe it or not, overloaded and poorly-positioned backpacks can actually cause serious injury. In a 2004 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, 64% of 11- to 15-year-olds who used backpacks also complained of pain.
If you've ever had back or neck pain, you know how uncomfortable it can be. The pain is often caused by pressure on the disks of the vertebrae. These disks are responsible for spacing out the vertebrae, holding them in place, and acting as shock absorbers. As we get older, our disks wear down or degenerate, causing chronic pain, herniated disks, and nerve damage. Putting pressure (like the added weight of a heavy backpack) on these disks wears them down even faster.
So what's a student to do? The stuff inside that pack is essential to survival (or at least to passing math), but you don't want your child to pay a painful price in years to come. Fortunately, following a few simple rules can ensure that your student is using his or her backpack properly and safely.
Choose the right sized pack. Adult-sized backpacks are made for adults, not children. Make sure to buy a pack that is appropriate for your child's body size. Most stores and catalogs list this information in the product description. If not, just ask. A general rule of thumb is that when the shoulder straps are adjusted so that they are snug, the bottom of the backpack should be about two inches above your child's waist.
Lighten your load. A filled backpack should weigh no more than 15% of your child's body weight. (Multiply his or her weight in pounds by .15 to get the maximum weight he or she should carry.) A 140 pound person should carry no more than 21 pounds, and an 80 pound child should keep it under 12 pounds. To lighten the load, first remove any non-essentials. Even an extra hairbrush and a few notebooks can add weight. If the bag is too heavy, even when pared down to the basics, have your child remove a textbook and carry it.
Lift with the legs. Teach your child to lift and put on his or her backpack properly: have them face the pack, bending at the knees-not the waist-then lift with the legs and apply one shoulder strap and then the other.
Position the pack properly. Wearing a backpack on one shoulder can cause muscle strain and imbalance. Have your child wear both shoulder straps, and adjust them so that they are comfortably snug. If the backpack has a waist strap, use it. It will distribute the weight of the pack more evenly. Have your child practice maintaining good posture while wearing the pack (and even when they aren't!).