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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Help kids avoid injuries from backpacks

Advertiser News Services

Every fall, backpacks are high on the list of back-to-school necessities because they are an easy way to carry books and supplies. In many schools, they are also a fashion statement. But overloading and slinging a heavy backpack over one shoulder can lead to a child's developing muscle strains, spine curvatures, and a lifetime of back pain.

More than 13,000 injuries related to backpacks are treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctors' offices, and clinics each year, according to estimates by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 2000 alone, more than 5,000 youths up to 11 years old and almost 7,000 students aged 18 to 21 visited medical facilities because of backpack-related problems.

The problem has become so widespread that some state legislators are proposing setting maximum weight standards for textbooks so that children don't have to lug heavy backpacks at school.

"Back pain in children is not so uncommon anymore," says Dr. Vernon T. Tolo, president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles. "More children are complaining of back pain from carrying heavy backpacks."

Parents should not ignore such complaints but should seek medical attention if the child complains of severe or persistent pain, numbness or tingling, Tolo said.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons offers these tips on using backpacks sensibly:

  • Do not overload the backpack. Make sure a child's backpack weighs no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of the child's body weight. This figure may vary, however, depending on the child's body strength and fitness. A heavy backpack forces the wearer to bend forward.
  • Do not buy a backpack that hangs more than four inches below the waistline. Backpacks that hang too low increase weight on the shoulders.
  • Use both shoulder straps. A pack slung over one shoulder shifts the weights to one side and can cause muscle spasms and low back pain.
  • Use a waist/hip strap to distribute weight evenly between the back and the hips.
  • Look for padded and adjustable shoulder straps to prevent straps from digging into the shoulder.
  • Choose a backpack on wheels if the school allows it.
  • Place heaviest items closest to the back, but be sure pointed or sharp objects are pointed away from the back.
  • Use proper lifting techniques: Bend at the knees and use your legs to lift the pack placing one shoulder strap on at a time.
  • Make frequent trips to the locker between classes to replace books.

Internet users can find additional information on backpacks and more at the academy's Web site, www.aaos.org.

The academy is participating in the Bone and Joint Decade (www.boneandjointdecade.org), a global initiative to raise awareness of musculoskeletal health. President Bush has declared the years 2002-2011 National Bone and Joint Decade, in support of the initiative.