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School Shopping? Consider Your Child's Backpack Carefully

Remember this column from Kathleen Miller, originally published Jan. 4, when shopping for that new pack, along with recommendations for some of the best brands.

If you have a middle school or high school student, chances are he or she is carrying an overloaded, heavy backpack. And some of the area’s schools offer no lockers, so your child may be dragging around a Sherpa size backpack all day, potentially causing pain and damage to his or her growing spine. 

Dr. Stefanie Haugen is a Redmond parent of two who trained at Logan College of Chiropractic in St. Louis, MO. She has been in practice as a chiropractor for over a decade, and recently moved her practice from Sammamish to Fremont Spine and Wellness. Carrying a heavy backpack improperly over time can definitely result in long-term challenges to a child’s spine says Haugen, including, “strained muscles and joints, headaches, forward head posture and causes serious back pain, just to name a few."

Haugen says the most common symptoms reported from backpack use is “rucksack palsy."

"This condition results when pressure put on the nerves in the shoulder causes numbness in the hands, muscle waiting and in extreme cases, nerve damage. While there are many causes of back pain, backpack caused pain is a serious, yet preventable cause,” she says.

Many students do not carry their backpacks properly, says Haugen.

“Do not sling it over one shoulder and don’t let it ride low on the back,” she advises. 

Avoid letting your student use too big of a backpack, cautions Haugen. The bottom of the backpack should align with the curve of the lower back, and should not be more than four inches below the waistline.

Haugen says parents should encourage children to not “carry a locker's worth of books to home and back to school everyday. Have them only carry what is needed for the day.” Also, she advised placing the heavier books closest to the back, in the closest compartment to the back for the best distribution of weight.

Parents should listen carefully and respond immediately when a child complains of pain associated with carrying their backpack, instruments and sports equipment.

“If they complain of neck or back pain, take them to see your family chiropractor, a physical therapist, or your family doctor or another posture specialist,” Haugen says.

Haugen says keeping children free of injury starts with getting the proper size of backpack with wide shoulder straps. “Shoulder straps should be cinched up with the backpack snug against their back, now hung low over their low back, pulling back on the spine. A backpack’s shoulder-strap anchor points should rest one to two inches below the top of the shoulders,” she says.

She recommends several packs designed or endorsed by Doctors of Chiropractic. Air Pack brand backpacks, which her own kids use, which are specifically designed to distribute weight better. Air Packs are available from Amazon.com and at some Chiropractic offices. Other recommended brands include DC packs, Targus RakGear backpack’s and North Face.

“Their backpack shouldn’t exceed 10 to 15 percent of their body weight. An 80-pound kid shouldn’t be lugging around a 12-pound backpack on a regular basis,” Haugen says. It is ok, says Haugen, for kids to haul heavier packs occasionally, like on family hikes or camping trip. She advises kids to pick up heavy objects such as backpacks and instruments by bending down and using their legs to lift the weight, not by bending over and pulling up. She says parents should avoid having a child twist around, such as when exiting the car, to try and pick up a heavy backpack or instrument case and haul it up and over a seat back. 

Haugen says maintaining proper posture is important for kids and teens and that this generation often has “video game posture” of shrugged shoulders and rounded backs as they hunch over laptops and video game equipment.

Redmond’s Alison Eliason is the mother of two, a yoga teacher and owner of . She says yoga can be beneficial for spinal alignment. 

“A regular practice of yoga ideally creates a habit of correct posture with a 'neutral spine,'" Eliason says. "Yoga’s emphasis on strength of the core muscles helps keep the spine tall and the back in alignment. 'Mountain pose' is a prime example of a posture in yoga that teaches yoga students to stand tall and walk without rounding forward. Other benefits of proper posture are strength and more energy—such as for staying alert in class.” 

Eliason says that in addition to yoga for kids and yoga for teens classes, the studio offers private sessions for one or more kids or teens, where an instructor can work on several issues with a student including proper posture, stress reduction and building strength. Discover Yoga even has free yoga classes coming up for teens in partnership with the Redmond Parks and Recreation Department. You can get more information by emailing nchang@redmond.gov.

In September, in conjunction with the national Backpack Safety America program, several Puget Sound area chiropractor clinics will be offering free spinal alignment check ups to families and you can find one online.  

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