Your Health

Tips to avoid backpack pain

Photo of teen girl carrying a heavy backpack.
Photo of Karen Kyliuk. DIANA DOYLE-ZEBRUN
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, September 29, 2017

Every year about this time, the nurses working the telephone lines at Health Links – Info Santé expect at least a couple of calls from parents with children who are experiencing back pain.

That’s because back pain is actually a relatively common health issue among school-aged children. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 50 per cent of kids will experience back trouble at some point, usually in the form of an ache or a sharp and shooting pain.

The reasons for back pain in kids will vary. For example, some problems can be traced to things like a soft mattress or a poorly positioned bicycle seat.

And then there is the backpack. Often loaded down with lunches, books, computer equipment, phones and whatever else kids feel like the need to drag around with them, backpacks have emerged as a potential source of back pain for kids.

There are many different types of backpacks and they all have their pros and cons. A shoulder bag, for example, puts weight on one side of the body, stressing the mid back. A backpack worn with two straps over the shoulders distributes weight fairly evenly across the back. But too much weight in the backpack can cause strain and injury over a period of time, distorting the natural curves in the middle and lower back.

Interestingly, an Italian study published in 2106 suggested that adolescent girls have more backpack injuries than boys, and experience more frequent and intense pain. This study also found that how long a child carried a backpack may be more important than the amount of weight carried.

There are, of course, a number of steps that can be taken to avoid problems with backpacks. Here are a few:

  • Children should avoid carrying a backpack that weighs more than 10 per cent of their weight.
  • Select a backpack that is made of lightweight material. Make sure it has wide shoulder straps and a belt to go around the waist when carrying a heavy load.
  • Ensure the backpack has a padded back and is not too large.
  • If carrying a laptop or heavier than usual load, use a second bag and carry it in the arms.
  • Don’t over pack the backpack. Students should avoid carrying a full binder for every subject – older students can make a homework folder, binder or clipboard with just what they need to carry, maintaining their binder of the term’s content either at home or at school.
  • Distribute the weight in the bag as evenly as possible, putting the heaviest items at the bottom.
  • Distribute the bag evenly on the back, with both straps on the shoulders and a waist or hip belt if possible to stop the bag from shifting.
  • Do not lean forward with the backpack on.
  • When lifting weight, bend the knees and lift with your legs.
  • Lighten the load as much as possible, minimizing extra pens and water bottles, as well as carrying only what’s necessary.

In most cases, the back pain kids suffer will resolve itself with rest. You can help alleviate your child’s back pain by applying heat to the area affected (being careful to avoid burns from the heat source being too hot) for the first 48 hours.

If pain is severe, ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be helpful. If pain continues and/or impacts normal activity, such as walking or sleep, you should see a health-care provider. 

It’s also worth noting that back pain can also be related to an illness, malformation in the back or an acute injury. Sometimes issues such as a urinary tract infection can cause back pain, so pain with illness or fever should be investigated with your primary health-care provider.

Diana Doyle-Zebrun is a registered nurse and Clinical and Quality Initiatives Manager at Health Links - Info Santé, a telephone health information service with the Provincial Health Contact Centre at Misericordia Health Centre.
This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, September 29, 2017.

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