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Is Your Child's Backpack Safe?



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Backpacks are part of the school uniform for more than 40 million children in this country, but too many are carrying too much weight, says Karen Jacobs, national spokesperson of American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

Because of potential injuries to children's muscles and joints, as well as posture problems, the American Academy of Pediatrics labeled the backpack issue a hot topic during the past school year, and it continues to be in the news. National School Backpack Awareness Day, sponsored by AOTA, is Wednesday, September 24, which may be a good time to encourage your child's school to get involved in educating students about safe practices.

California and New Jersey each passed legislation last session intended to ease the problem of children carrying heavy loads home from school. Additionally, a recent study conducted at the University of Michigan made news when it declared that there was no connection between backpacks and back pain. It's no wonder parents are confused about backpack purchases and use.

The Consumer Product and Safety Commission estimates that more than 7,000 emergency room visits in 2001 resulted from injuries related to backpacks and book bags, half of these occurring in children 5 to 14 years old. In addition to overloaded packs causing skeletal pain, tripping over the pack also caused numerous foot/ankle or wrist/ elbow injuries.

Fifty-five percent of children in a 2001 American Physical Therapy Association study led by Shelley Goodgold at the University of Florida carried backpack loads heavier than the recommended maximum 15 percent of body weight. One-third of these children reported back pain severe enough to warrant medical attention or limit activities. Even more dismaying is the recurrent nature of these problems.

While Dr. Andrew Haig, associate professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation of Surgery at University of Michigan tells parents not to panic about the packs children choose and use, he reminds them to listen to their children and respond to complaints of pain. Backpacks themselves may not be inherently dangerous, but carrying one improperly or one that is too heavy does raise concern. Proper backpack selection is still an important health issue for children.

Parental awareness can be an important factor in preventing long- or short-term consequences of shouldering heavy loads. Manufacturers are developing safer products. Look for styles that have lightweight padding on the straps. Encourage your child to use both shoulder straps to reduce pressure and allow free movement. Bearing all the weight on one shoulder can lead to muscle spasms or even misalignment of the spine. Chest and hip straps also help balance weight over the body better. Adjust straps so the pack rests about two inches above the waist. Some models come with compression straps to stabilize articles inside and keep them close to the back.

Compartments help to distribute the contents and thus weight. AOTA has collaborated with a well-known retailer to provide hangtags giving correct usage of backpacks.

Wheeled backpacks are a good idea, if your child's school allows them (difficult to use on stairs and in narrow hallways), as long as children don't pick them up and try to carry them on their backs.

Your child may be stressed by improper backpack usage if he struggles while putting the pack on or taking it off or has red marks from the pack on his body. Slumped posture or the head leaning forward is another sign that the pack is too heavy. Any pain, numbness or tingling also signals trouble. Arms, fingers, neck, shoulders, back or knees may be affected. In more serious case, spinal injuries may result or be aggravated by improper backpack use. Children who spend many hours watching television or sitting in front of a computer (and even some athletic types) may not have the core strength needed to support the weight they want to carry.

Parents should monitor the pack for unnecessary items. For many children, the backpack has become their life support system, says Jacobs. Crammed in with the books and pencils are stuffed toys, CD players, tennis shoes, cell phones, bottled water and even laptop computers. Encourage your child to leave the excess at home. Educate him to understand the problems associated with lugging too much weight.

Many parents are now working with schools on alternate ways of providing course information. Perhaps the teacher can photocopy homework assignments or provide duplicate textbooks for home use. Online study guides and assignment sheets help parents monitor due dates for student work, so the child won't need to bring all textbooks home every day.

When shopping for a backpack, select a style appropriate for your child's weight and size. Smaller children need smaller packs, which limits items that will fit inside. If possible, have the child try the pack on loaded as it will be for school.

Take the time and responsibility to go through the bag every day with younger children—you might even find an important note from the teacher scrunched among the worksheets. Be vigilant, even with older kids and teens, to keep them compliant with safe practices.

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