MOST children have to drag huge backpacks to and from school every day. Like turtles with oversized shells, they stagger under the weight of huge packs from their home to school and back, some even have to run or climb stairs with such heavy backpacks. It seems normal and the routine of every child, but how dangerous is this seemingly innocuous task?
Professor Francis Uba, a consultant Paediatric Surgeon at the Jos University Teaching Hospital, has declared that carrying heavy backpacks has a number of health implications on children who are subjected to such burden.
“Children who have to carry heavy backpacks to and from school every day may experience strains, aching backs, shoulder and neck pains, tingling arms, weakened muscles, stooped posture and scoliosis, which is the curving of the spine to one side, inducing severe pain.” Uba said.
He also added that some emotional and psychological problems could emerge as well when backpack loads interfere with the way a child walks or inflict accidental injuries on children by causing them to trip and fall in the presence of onlookers. Also, indirect backpack injuries emerge when a heavy backpack falls on another child.
According to spinal surgeons, carrying heavy backpacks increases the risk of back pain and possibly the risk of back pathology.
The prevalence of school children carrying heavy backpacks is extremely high today than it was in the past. The daily physical stresses associated with carrying backpacks cause significant forward lean of the head and trunk. “It is, therefore, assumed that daily intermittent abnormal postural adaptations could result in pain and disability in school children,” experts say.
A recent study on the weight limit recommendation in backpack use for school-aged children, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics, concluded that backpack weight should not exceed 10 to 15 per cent of a child’s body weight and appropriate weight for each child should be determined individually.
Corroborating the findings of the study, Uba explained that “a child’s backpack should weigh no more than about 10 per cent of his or her body weight. This means a student weighing 100 pounds shouldn’t wear a loaded school backpack heavier than about 10 pounds. Parents should avoid any backload for which the child complains of heavy waist.”
The consultant paediatric surgeon, in a bid to help parents determine the appropriate backpack load in relation to a child’s weight, said “a good backpack should be no larger than the child’s back. To simplify matters, one can take two measurements off of a child’s back and use those for the maximum height and width of the backpack by finding the maximum height, which could be done by measuring from the shoulder line to the waist line and adding two inches. The shoulder line is where the backpack straps will actually rest on the body, about half way between the neck and shoulder joint.
“The waist line is at the belly button. The backpack should fit two inches below the shoulders and up to four inches below the waist, so adding two inches to our measurement will give that. The width of the back can be measured between the ridges of the shoulder blades. An extra inch or two is acceptable.”
Backpack injuries may range from mild to chronic and could have some devastating long term effect on children’s health like shrinkage and long standing back pain.
According to a 2010 study in the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, which studied a small test group of children around the age of 11, “the constant weight of backpacks was actually causing spinal cords to compress and causing significant back pain.”
Uba, therefore, charged parents to load their children’s backpacks more appropriately while ensuring that the backpack is of good quality and properly worn.
Loading a backpack
He instructed that the heaviest items should be loaded closest to the child’s back, which is, the back of the pack, books and other materials should be arranged in a manner that they won’t be sliding around in the backpack and only important items should be carried every day.
Wearing a backpack
He added that the weight of the backpack must be distributed evenly by using both straps. According to him, parents must discourage their children from wearing their backpacks slung over one shoulder. It causes a child to lean to one side, curving the spine and causing pain or discomfort.
Uba also said parents must also adjust the shoulder straps so that the pack is snugly on the child’s back. A pack that hangs loosely from the back can pull the child backwards and strain muscles. Wear the waist belt if the backpack has one. This helps distribute the pack’s weight more evenly. The bottom of the pack should rest in the curve of the lower back. It should never rest more than four inches below the child’s waistline.” ?
Choosing a backpack
Uba again admonished parents to select a backpack with well-padded shoulder straps and to ensure that the right backpack, despite the cost, is chosen at all times. “Shoulders and necks have many blood vessels and nerves that can cause pain and tingling in the neck, arms, and hands when too much pressure is applied. School backpacks come in different sizes for different ages. Choose the right size pack for your child as well as one with enough room for necessary school items.”
Alternatives to backpacks, according to Uba, can also be employed. “If the backpack is too heavy or tightly packed, your child can hand carry a book or other item outside the pack and if the backpack is too heavy on a regular basis, you can consider buying a book bag on wheels if your child’s school allows it.”
According to children’s health, awareness should be created among health care professionals, teachers, parents to restrict backpack load by using school locker shelves. “Improper use of backpacks is not healthy for anyone, especially for children who are more susceptible to injury because their bodies are growing and developing.”