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Backpacks Too Heavy?

It's back-to-school time, and many parents of school-age kids are wondering: How is my child going to carry all these textbooks?

Stores have a dizzying array of backpack choices, but medical experts say it's crucial to keep the weight as light as possible. "When buying one, make sure it is the right size for a child. Keep in mind, proportion," said Donna Geleroff, physical therapist at Baptist Hospital in Kendall. "Look for padded shoulders and different pockets to separate the weight."

Dr. Michael Tidwell, director of the pediatric orthopedic center at Baptist Children's Hospital, recommended buying lightweight backpacks regardless of the child's age. A child's backpack should be 20 percent of his body weight, according to the American Society of Orthopedics. The American Physical Therapy Association recommends a backpack should be 10 to 15 percent of a child's weight.

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Younger kids are not the only ones carrying their backpacks with difficulty.
"The problem does not seem to be age-related," Tidwell said, "but I can see how someone in middle school, with more books, could have more difficulty carrying their backpack."

When packing the books, the heaviest things should be closer to the child's back. "The middle of the back is where all the strong muscles are," Geleroff said. "Don't wear it loose. I know that hanging it really high looks dorky, but it will be worth it."

Injuries can happen when when backpacks are worn improperly but not scoliosis. "It is a common wives' tale, but heavy backpacks will not cause scoliosis," Tidwell said. "Scoliosis is caused by reasons unknown; it just happens."

If children wear backpacks with uneven straps, that can affect balance, which can lead to a twisted ankle, Tidwell said. The most common injuries occur in the shoulder because heavy straps can tear the tendons in the area. "If you are looking at your child and they are leaning forward, that's a sign the backpack is too heavy," Geleroff said. "Catch it early before it becomes a problem."

Other indicators of problems include strains, muscle spasms, tingling or numbness in the arms, or red marks.

To avoid possible injuries or pain, an alternative can be the rolling backpack, but both experts said it is hard to enforce and may not be practical. "I try to get them to use the rolling bag, but it can become a safety hazard for the little ones in a hallway," Tidwell said. "I also tell kids to drop off books often in their locker, but you can't expect them to do that with such little time and 500 students in the hallway."

Geleroff said rolling bags aren't practical in two-story schools. "It's not really an option if there are two floors, because carrying it up the stairs is strenuous enough," she said.

Other ways to lighten the load:

  • Take out unnecessary materials from the bag.
  • Buy a separate set of textbooks to keep at home.
  • Compact papers into small folders instead of a large binder.
"There is always physical therapy, but you don't want it to get to that point," she said. "If a child complains, tell them to stop, rest and stretch."
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