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Simple steps can alleviate risk of injuries caused by heavy backpacks

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 8:56 a.m. MDT

Suzanne Schaefer, right, helps her daughter Maggie, left, and son Matthew load their heavy backpacks.   (Phil Skinner, Mct) Suzanne Schaefer, right, helps her daughter Maggie, left, and son Matthew load their heavy backpacks. (Phil Skinner, Mct)

ATLANTA — Even if you're not a parent of school-aged children, the traffic and returning road rage have signaled the beginning of a new school year.

But what may not be common knowledge, even to parents, doctors say, are the risks associated with lugging around heavy backpacks.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, backpack-related injuries send an estimated 5,000 children a year to emergency rooms. More than 14,000 children are treated annually for injuries.

Carrying a heavy backpack is bad enough, but if a child also suffers from scoliosis, a stress fracture or muscle strain, the weight can aggravate the condition or delay recovery, said Dr. David Marshall, medical director of sports medicine at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"The fallout from this could be missing school days due to back pain, missing certain classes (P.E.) and activities such as after-school sports, scouts and camps," he said.

Suzanne Schaefer, right, helps her daughter Maggie, left, and son Matthew load their heavy backpacks and gear in the family car while leaving Cornerstone Preparatory Academy at Summit Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, August 9, 2013. (Phil Skinner/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT) (Phil Skinner, Mct) Suzanne Schaefer, right, helps her daughter Maggie, left, and son Matthew load their heavy backpacks and gear in the family car while leaving Cornerstone Preparatory Academy at Summit Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, August 9, 2013. (Phil Skinner/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT) (Phil Skinner, Mct)

Marshall said parents should consider a second set of books for home use to avoid carrying the entire load to and from school. In addition, a visit to the doctor to evaluate children for core weakness, tight back muscles and poor posture might also be in order.

The risks associated with heavy backpacks have long been a concern for parents like Suzanne Schaefer and Diane Crowell, who suggested her daughter bring home only the books she needs to complete assignments.

Because she needed all of them, they compromised. Crowell purchased a rolling bag to take the weight off.

Rolling bags, however, also pose a safety risk, since students have to maneuver staircases, said Schaefer, a mother of an elementary and a middle school student at Cornerstone Preparatory Academy in Kennesaw.

Maggie Schaefer's backpack is full as she leaves school in Kennesaw, Ga.      (Phil Skinner, Mct) Maggie Schaefer's backpack is full as she leaves school in Kennesaw, Ga. (Phil Skinner, Mct)

Schaefer said she worries about both having to carry so many books but particularly her son, Matthew, because he is so small.

"The books probably weigh as much as he does, but he has to bring them home every day," she said. "I'm just afraid he might injure himself carrying so many books back and forth."

To help take a load off, Marshall offered these tips from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta:

Buy a backpack with two wide, padded straps that go over the shoulders. Make sure your child uses both straps.

Choose a backpack with a padded waist or chest belt. This distributes weight more evenly across the body. Multiple compartments also help distribute the weight.

 (photos by Phil Skinner, Mct) (photos by Phil Skinner, Mct)

Your child's backpack should not be wider than his body.

Consider choosing a backpack with a metal frame (like hikers use) or on wheels (like a flight attendant's bag). Check with your child's school first to see if these types of bags are allowed.

When fully loaded, your child's backpack should weigh less than 15 percent of his body weight. Use your bathroom scale to measure the maximum backpack load so your child can know what it should feel like.

Make sure your child isn't toting unnecessary items like laptops, CD players and video games. These can add a lot of pounds.

Heavier items should be placed closer to the back of the backpack, near the body.

Picking up the backpack properly is important. As with any heavy object, your child should bend at the knees and grab the pack with both hands when lifting it to his shoulders.

Encourage your child to develop stronger lower back and abdominal muscles. This will help avoid back injury. Weight training and yoga are two activities that can help strengthen core muscles.

Safe backpacks

No more than 10-15 percent body weight

Well-padded shoulder straps (over both shoulders, not just one)

Abdominal strap to evenly distribute the backpack load over shoulders and back

Weight of the pack should not fall below the pant line

Well-padded pack to prevent being poked by pencil boxes, rulers

Heaviest books in the front part of the pack, closest to the back

Source: Dr. David Marshall, medical director of sports medicine at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Safe backpacks

No more than 10-15 percent body weight

Well-padded shoulder straps (over both shoulders, not just one)

Abdominal strap to evenly distribute the backpack load over shoulders and back

Weight of the pack should not fall below the pant line

Well-padded pack to prevent being poked by pencil boxes, rulers

Heaviest books in the front part of the pack, closest to the back

Source: Dr. David Marshall, medical director of sports medicine at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

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