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Use care in loading, carrying packs to protect young backs

A healthy back can start with what your child carries around every day.

For 180 days a year, most children are lugging school books and supplies in a backpack. A pack doesn’t fit well or isn’t worn correctly can mean pain for growing backs.

“Probably the biggest cause would be overpacking your backpack and having the appropriate size for your child,” Amy Hunt, a physician's assistant with Piedmont Orthopedic Associates, a Bon Secours Medical Group practice, said.

Hunt said backpacks should be chosen based on the child’s height and weight. Smaller children need smaller packs. Getting a well fitted backpack is important. Some key features can help, too.

“You want to make sure you have wide straps and a padded back,” she said.

A waist clip can help distribute the weight of the pack so it is more comfortable, easier to carry and less likely to cause back pain.

No matter how well the pack fits, the best design won’t help if children don’t wear it properly.

“You see kids wearing it on one shoulder and it can cause strain,” Hunt says. “Keep it up high toward the back. Encourage them not to put everything in it. Just put in what you have to have.”

Locker stops, if available, can help. Children can deposit some of the load and only carry what they need.

While most schools no longer allow students to use rolling backpacks, Hunt said there are some good alternatives available, including crossbody bags.

“If they are having pain, make sure they are only using the books they need,” Hunt said.

In some cases, students may have the option to get a second set of books for home use, if e-books are not available.

“If it’s persisting, don’t ignore it,” Hunt said. “Get them to the doctor. They may need some specific physical therapy exercises. Don’t ignore back pain in a child. If they are having any numbness or tingling in their arms or discomfort in their arms or legs, certainly that needs to be addressed by the physician.”

Considering backpack safety:

  • Choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back.
  • Pack light. Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back. The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of your child's body weight. Go through the pack with your child weekly and remove unneeded items to keep it light.
  • Always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles.
  • Adjust the pack so the bottom sits at the waist.

(Source: AAP,