With students heading off to school, it’s important to keep their loads lightened

Oh, their aching necks, shoulders, rib cages and lower backs. As students haul themselves and their start-of-school supplies into classrooms this week, some may be risking injury.

Packed too heavy or worn improperly, backpacks can cause pain that endures into adulthood. More than 2,000 backpack-related injuries were treated at doctor’s offices, clinics and emergency rooms in 2007, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

When technicians working for Consumer Reports weighed the backpacks of more than 50 elementary students at three New York schools, they found that oldest students were carrying the heaviest loads.

On average, second-graders’ packs weighed 5.3 pounds. Fourth-graders’ packs weighed in at 4.6 pounds. The packs of the oldest children in the survey, sixth-graders, were the heaviest. They averaged 18.4 pounds, but some topped 30 pounds. While the younger children were toting acceptable loads, the sixth-graders’ burdens were too heavy, the technicians found – averaging more than 17 percent of the children’s body weight.

Meg Smith, a physical therapist at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane Valley, said to prevent injury, children’s backpacks should weigh no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of the student’s body weight. For an 80-pound fifth-grader, that’s 12 pounds, max.

Parents can help kids plan ahead and remove old assignments, Smith said, so they’re only hauling the books and supplies they really need. And students can take little breaks during their commutes so they’re hauling the weight for less time total, setting their packs on the ground as they wait for school to start or on the seat next to them on the bus.

But preventing injury starts with choosing the right pack. Some more tips for keeping kids safe during their daily hauls:

Get a good fit. The top of the pack should rest a couple of inches under the tops of the shoulder blades. The bottom should be at the lowest part of the back. The straps should be fairly tight, so there’s minimal gapping between the backpack and the back. If kids are holding their straps with their hands or shrugging to keep the pack in place, it probably doesn’t fit correctly, Smith said.

Pack smart. If the pack has multiple pockets, place items in the lowest pockets first. The weight should be centered as close to the child’s core as possible. Consider putting a sweater in the pack to keep heavy items from shifting. Bonus: The kid always has a sweater on hand.

Wear backpacks on both shoulders, and avoid bags with just one strap. Messenger bags are especially popular with older students, but they can get too heavy fast. Packed with just one 15-pound college textbook, “not to mention your computer and your charger, your pack can get up to 25 pounds really easily,” Smith said.

Compared with a backpack worn on both shoulders, a messenger bag or big purse puts uneven weight on one side of the body, depressing the body down and inward. That can cause an imbalanced workload on kids’ muscles and lead to a rotation of the spine. The strap of a messenger bag also can put too much weight on the collarbone, which causes pain in the rib cage.

Choose a backpack with wider straps. Straps with greater surface area spread out the weight better. College students who’ll be making long hikes across campus should consider upgrading to a backpack with a waist strap, which helps distribute weight.

Watch for signs of trouble. Besides complaints of pain from backpack-wearing kids, parents should look out for red marks on their child’s shoulders or changes in posture as students tote their loads, according to a guide St. Luke’s provides to parents. They may lean forward and round their shoulders to carry a too-heavy burden. If a child reports tingling or numbness in their arms or legs or pain that lasts a couple of weeks – despite efforts to reduce their load or improve their pack’s fit – then it’s time to consult a doctor, Smith said.

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