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What the Experts Say
Heavy School Backpacks and Children
By University of the Sciences in Philadelphia

The quintessential picture of a young student slouched forward while toting a burdensome backpack to school is not the image occupational and physical therapists would like to see. Schoolchildren and teens all over the country carry backpacks filled with textbooks and other heavy items that can cause physical strains and pains. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that more than 3,300 children, aged 5-14 years, were treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to backpacks in 1998. This does not include the long-term effects, such as neck and back ailments, which backpacks can cause if used incorrectly. These numbers may increase if parents and school officials are not educated in backpack safety.

“Heavy backpacks breed poor posture in children,” says Dr. Paula Kramer, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. “Children have to bend forwards to compensate for the heavy load on their backs which throw off their center of gravity. This increased weight puts a strain on their backs and pressure on their disks. We want parents and children to realize the right ways to use backpacks.”

And what exactly are the right ways? According to many doctors, physical and occupational therapists, children should learn how to select the right backpack and the proper ways to load and wear it. Here are some helpful tips from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA):

*Select a backpack that is appropriate to the child’s size and age.

*Select a backpack that has well-padded shoulder straps.

*Children should not carry more than 15% of their body weight in the backpack.

*Load the heaviest items closest to the child’s back to help distribute weight evenly.

*Always wear both shoulder straps to distribute weight evenly.

*Adjust shoulder straps so that the backpack fits snugly to the back.

*The bottom of the backpack should rest in the curve of the lower back.

According to Teaching Elementary Physical Health, more than 40 million students carry school backpacks. Dr. Kramer says that if the majority of these students are carrying their backpacks incorrectly, then physical and occupational therapists will be treating many more individuals for neck and back ailments.

“We already have a big population of people complaining about neck and back pains,” she says. “If children keep wearing backpacks that are heavy and packed improperly, they may be causing themselves a lifetime of aches and pains. We want to protect our children and their development. We need to stress this to parents and then maybe we will see the number of children having achy backs decrease.”

AOTA is joining in the mission to alert parents of school-aged children and school officials. On September 21, AOTA will sponsor School Backpack Awareness Day. This pilot program, which will target five major media markets, will entail a “weigh in” for children to make sure their backpacks weigh no more than 15%. Information about the correct ways to select, load and wear backpacks will be distributed.

“This program is a great start,” says Dr. Kramer, “but it should not be a one-day occurrence. I’d love to see this be an annual event.”

For more information, visit www.usip.edu

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