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Shape up Before You Pack it up:
Wise Backpack Usage

For many students, back to school can mean the beginning of back and shoulder pain from carrying a weighty backpack. Students should start conditioning their bodies now before attempting to carry heavy backpacks, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons advises.

You might be surprised at the number of injuries attributed to backpacks: 13,264 visits to physician offices, clinics and hospital emergency rooms in 2000 alone for individuals 21 and younger, according to statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Of those visits, 41.7 percent were for children 11 years old or younger; 52.5 percent involved youths between the ages of 12 and 17.

The combination of unconditioned trunk muscles and a heavy backpack is a cause of a lot of shoulder and back pain in children, says Dr. Angela D. Smith, orthopaedic surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"Back pain in children used to be looked at as an uncommon medical problem, but we're seeing more children complaining of back pain due to carrying heavy backpacks," Smith said. "Much of back pain in school-age children is now due to weak trunk muscles and poor flexibility. Even teens who are playing soccer five days a week often lack the necessary strength and flexibility to carry their heavy packs without pain."

Students should do exercises to strengthen their abdominal and back muscles, AAOS said. Smith also makes the following recommendations concerning choosing backpacks to her patients and their parents:

  • Participate in school physical-education classes, enroll in classes outside of school or watch videos to learn how to condition your muscles.

  • Choose a backpack on wheels if your school allows it.

  • Buy a camping-quality/style backpack with the appropriate structure and design to allow for heavier weight; don't just go for what's fashionable.

  • Make sure the shoulder straps are padded and use both shoulders while carrying the backpack.

  • Use a waist/hip strap to help distribute the weight evenly between the back and hips.

  • Make sure the weight is carried close to the body and secured (belted).

  • Use the correct lifting techniques: Remember, bend with both knees when picking up a heavy backpack.

  • Place the heaviest items closest to your back.

  • Neatly pack your backpack; try to keep items in place.

  • Try to make frequent trips to your locker between classes to replace books.

There's nothing wrong with carrying a shoulder bag for small and light-weight items, and holding the heavy items in your hands, Smith added.

Although past recommendations on backpack weight have been between 15 percent and 20 percent when determining how much weight your child should carry, Smith noted, "the actual weight of the backpack and its contents may vary greatly depending on the strength of the child."

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