You've Never Heard Backpack Safety Like This

Ahhhh….. School is here. In my office I am hearing all sorts of emotional reactions. Tons of Excitement is coming from the under 4 foot crowd. A bit of Fear and Uncertainty from our patients that are tall enough to look Mom in the eye and are entering middle or high school. As we say good bye to our patients who are off to college, we see the new found Independence in their eye. Our patients who are teachers are feeling a bit of Stress as they prepare for their classes…. already on deadline. Relief? Well, that emotion seems to be reserved for the parents who have been home with the kids all summer!

Me? How am I feeling? I am feeling Determined. I am Determined that this year we will once again help families become aware of the fact that backpacks can cause damage to your childs spine. I know there has been a lot of talk the last couple of years about backpack safety, but I also feel that that is all it is… talk…. it’s a topic parents seem to breeze by.

I recently read that “more than 10,000 children nationally suffer from backpack related injuries”.

I know that I am a Chiropractor so I am really focused on things having to do with the spine and nervous system, but as a parent….I find that a startling number.


That is one reason why this week I am going to put out some very basic, simple steps parents and children need to take to be sure the backpack does not destroy the spine rack.

One point I want to make clear. backpack safety is not just for the little ones. The older kids are probably worse offenders. They have more to carry. They like to look cool. They are tougher to follow the safety rules. But their spines are no less important than our elementary kids. So please be diligent.

Let’s talk first about choosing the right backpack.

I am not a fan of shoulder bags, messenger bags, or purses for carrying all the supplies needed for a day at school. Though they look really cool and trendy, just imagine the uneven stress pulling on one side of their body causing mucsles in the neck and shoulders to strain and perhaps pulling bones out of their assigned position in that area. Your child may end up leaning to one side constantly to offset the extra weight as well. This may cause injury to the lower and upper back. Choosing a traditional backpack is better because the strongest muscles in the body - the back and the abdominal muscles - support the weight of the packs.

The size of the backpack is very important.. The backpack should never be wider or longer than your child’s torso. It should not rest lower than the base of the child’s back. A backpack that hangs too low increases the weight on the shoulders, causing your child to lean forward. Again, even though your 3rd grader is begging for the backpack that looks like a giant MP3 player with speakers that actually resonate sound, if it’s hanging down to his rear end…Just Say No.

Wide, cushioned, Shoulder Straps are the next essential item on a healthy backpack. Non-padded straps are not only uncomfortable, but can also place unnecessary pressure on the neck and shoulder muscles. Sturdy shoulder straps distribute the contents’ weight to reduce pressure on shoulders and neck. Be sure the straps are adjustable. The pack needs to be secured close, but not tight, to your child’s body. Do not allow your kids to wear their backpacks over just one shoulder - as many do, because they think it looks better. It presents the same problems as the saddle bags.

Now that we know the requiremnets of choosing the right backpack, let’s talk about how to use a backpack.

A backpack should never be more than 10 to 15 percent of your child’s body weight. If you don’t know what that 10 to 15% feels like, use the bathroom scale to weigh the items you are putting into the backpack.. I have a first grader, Luke, who weighs 45 lbs. So he should not be carrying any more than 4 1/2 to 6 lbs in his back…at the most. My third grader, Jimmy, is 65 lbs so he can carry 6 ½ to 9 lbs. Jimmy is a large boy for his grade and he should not carry more than 9 lbs. Just to give you a relative example…a gallon of milk is 11lbs. Jimmy should not even be carrying a gallon of milk in his backpack.

Make sure kids don’t tote unnecessary items - laptops, and video games and beyblades can add extra pounds to a pack.

If the pack is still too heavy have your child carry a heavy text book under one arm to help relieve the weight on the back.

Encourage kids to use their locker or desk frequently throughout the day instead of carrying the entire day’s worth of books in the backpack. This simple strategy can relieve 2/3 of the weight the kids carry through the halls all day.

Ask about homework planning. A heavier pack on Thursday might mean that a child is procrastinating on homework until the last minute, making for an unnecessarily heavy backpack (so now we have another way to know if they are doing the homework they say they are doing all week).

Ok…now here is the super important part - keep reading.

Children wearing their backpack incorrectly most likely will not start feeling pain for 3 to 4 months from the onset of school. That may sound like a long time, and it is. The problem is that is when they start “feeling” the pain. The damage to their spine started the first day they threw that sack around to their back and lugged it on one shoulder all the way to school, pulling and straining on the muscles, tissues and bones of their neck and spine. Since that first day their spine has been trying to compensate by starting to sway the opposite way. Additionally, scar tissue has started to form where the initial stress was put on the spine and caused a misalignment called a vertebral subluxation.

This happens to kids all the time. I see them at my office shortly after New Year’s and they have been suffering all through the holidays. They have spent the last 5 months with a comprimised Nervous System due to that misalignment.

When the bones in the spine are misaligned they are squeezing the nerves coming out between the bones and therefore not allowing the nerves and nervous system to communicate at 100% to all the the other systems, such as the digestive system or immune system. A misaligned bone can comprimise the commnuication to organs such as the heart, lungs sinuses. This is important stuff.

That is why I am determined to get the backpack Safety message across to families again this year. My goal, my mission, is to help as many people as I can to be healthy, especially kids. And good health comes from a healthy nervous system. And a healthy nervous system comes from a healthy spine.

I hope you all have a great start to a new school year!

Happy Learning,

Dr. Jim

Dr. Jim Schaffer of Kimberton Chiropractic Center located in Phoenixville, is a weekly contributor to the Phoenix.