Better backpacks help lessen strain

By Amanda Rogers

Knight Ridder Newspapers

It's back to school, and back to backpacks. And for kids today, that can mean trouble. The average American child lugs around about 20 pounds of books and other school paraphernalia daily, an unhealthy and sometimes hazardous exercise.

"We think of muscular strain coming from trauma, like an accident," says Carolyn Slay, a physical therapist at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. "But wearing a backpack that's too heavy, over time you can end up with an injury.

"You can have pressure on nerves (from the straps) and the nerves travel through muscles, so with muscle spasms you can impinge the nerve and get tingling and numbness in your hands," Slay says.


Most kids don't wear their backpacks correctly -- with both straps -- because it isn't cool. But being cool can lead to some serious pain and long-term health problems. "Wearing the backpack on one side puts a strain on the muscles and tissue," Slay says. "When you get muscular strain to that degree and for that length (of time,) it can actually pull the vertebrae out of line. It looks like curvature of the spine. It's not necessarily that shoulder that hurts, but the muscles are having to compensate. Your child could have pain elsewhere, including headaches."

In response to concerns over the heavier loads, backpack designers such as Nike and JanSport have begun to market ergonomically correct packs.

"Kids are going to doctors and chiropractors and they have the backs of 40-year-olds," says Leigh Bakum, product-line manager for Nike's global line. She guided a team of designers through 18 months of heavy-lifting backpack research.

"We think the problems are linked to the loads they're being forced to carry," Bakum says. "Lockers are going away, and books are getting bigger. They're carrying it on their back. We were in Hong Kong in January, and it was front-page news there."

JanSport, the leading backpack seller in the United States, has put really wide straps on its ergo packs and filled them with a honeycomb of plastic gel to cushion the shoulders. Nike, which has three new ergonomically correct BioKNX packs in its fall line, lined its packs' shoulder straps with little capsules of air. The BioKNX packs also have padded neck and lower-back supports and a thick plastic disc in the center that curves around a kid's spine to center the load.

"It helps place the heaviest loads in the optimal spot and has clips to keep the books from shifting, because we know the kids who wear our backpacks are very active," Bakum says.

Ergonomics, though, will only get your child so far if she loads too much into the pack or slings it over one shoulder.

"My recommendation is, your pack should never weigh more than 20 percent of your weight," Slay says. "Wear the backpack the way that it was intended, to distribute the weight. At the very least, alternate which shoulder you wear it over. The best advice is to wear it as it was intended."


Even though it may not look cool, fastening the waist belt will help ease the load, too.

"Packs tend to bounce and bang, and that can be painful," Slay says. "The belt secures it better so you don't get the banging; it keeps the pack still and the weight distributed more evenly."

Anything that distributes the weight will make the pack more comfortable, Slay says, but the load is still the same.

"You're still carrying the weight," she says. "Be logical. If your kids are leaning backward when they put it on, it's probably not a good thing."

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