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How Is Your Child's Backpack?

Of all the physical burdens schoolchildren must shoulder, their backpacks are probably the heaviest.

Crammed with everything from lunches to laptops, bags can cause stiff necks, sore shoulders and aching backs. The Consumer Product Safety Commission found that in one year, more than 21,000 children ages 5 to 14 see doctors with backpack-related complaints.

"The extra stress placed on the spine and shoulder from the heavy loads is causing some unnecessary medical problems," says Charlotte B. Alexander, M.D., of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Back pain in children is not uncommon anymore. Packs typically strain back and shoulder muscles when the load is more than 20 percent of a child's body weight.

A poorly fitted or worn backpack can worsen posture or hinder circulation, causing numb or tingling arms, says Jan K. Richardson, Ph.D., a professor of physical therapy and a past president of the American Physical Therapy Association.

"Have your kids use both straps and make frequent stops at their locker throughout the day to avoid carrying all their books at once, and leave non-essentials at home," she says. "Above all, urge your children to tell you if they are in pain or have discomfort before a problem becomes serious.''

Easy on their backs

Here are tips on how to lighten the load on your child:

  • Buy a pack with wide, padded straps to minimize pressure on the shoulders and collarbone.

  • Consider the empty pack's weight. Leather is fashionable, but it's heavier than nylon.

  • Carry the pack on both shoulders to spread the weight; tighten straps to hold it about 2 inches above the waist.

  • Load the heaviest items closest to the body to ease strain on back and abdominal muscles, and try to keep everything in place.

  • Use proper lifting techniques when hoisting a heavy pack. Bend both knees rather than leaning over.

  • Use the hip strap to help stabilize a heavier load.

  • Consider a backpack with wheels to ease long walks.

  • Store heavy, unused material in a locker, when possible.