Safety comes first when considering backpacks

Backpacks are great tools for helping students carry books to and from school, but if they aren't properly packed, book bags can cause serious illnesses and physical injuries.

Backpack safety is a growing concern for parents, teachers and medical professionals.

Across the United States, more than 40 million students carry backpacks. One study, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association, revealed that six out of 10 students age 9-20 reported chronic back pain related to backpacks.

In 2008, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 12,300 book bag injuries that sent children to doctor offices and emergency rooms. Sprains and strains were among the most common complaints.

Because the spine continues to develop until the age of 18, improper use of a backpack can cause adverse effects on the spine. An overloaded backpack causes a child to struggle to carry the load; leaning forward, rounding the shoulders or carrying the bag on one shoulder, causing one to shrug a shoulder and curve the spine for stability. Adolescent back pain may be a direct cause of adult back pain later in life.

Staying healthy, upright

So what can one do to avoid backpack-related health problems? Follow these basic tips:

• Buy the appropriate sized backpack for the individual. Specially sized versions for smaller children weigh less and are smaller all the way around: shorter shoulder straps, lengths and widths. The lighter the pack, the better.

• Get the right fit. The bottom of the pack should rest just at the curve of the lower back and never more than 4 inches from the child's waistline. Two-inch, well-padded shoulder straps will protect soft tissue (blood vessels and nerves) from pressure that can cause tingling in the neck, arms and hands. Use a waist strap, which helps distribute the weight and prevents the pack from sliding on the back.

• Never sling the backpack over one shoulder. This causes the child to lean to one side, with potential pain or discomfort from too much weight. Always wear both shoulder straps to keep the pack close and snug on the child's back.

• When loading the backpack, place larger, heavier items lower and to the back of the pack. Pack only what is needed for the day. Make sure items are packed so they won't slide around in the pack. A heavy backpack with loose items will shift around and cause the child to assume unnatural postures.

• Never allow the child to carry more than 15 percent of his or her body weight. If a child weighs 100 pounds, he or she should not carry more than 15 pounds in the pack. This can be checked by looking at the child's posture. If he or she is bent forward, it is too heavy.

• To decrease some of the weight, replace three-ring binders with spiral bound or composition books for note taking. If they need three-ring binders, use two 1-inch binders rather than 3-inch binders. Consider hand carrying a heavier book, or better yet, use a rolling backpack. Keep in mind, however, that they will have to pick up the pack to carry it up stairs. Parents also can help their children by checking due dates on assignments so they are not carrying unneeded information to and from school.

• Talk to your child and encourage them to tell you if they have pain or discomfort. If your child has pain, or complains of tingling or weakness in the arms or legs, seek medical attention immediately.

Purchasing purses

When buying a purse, it's important that the bag has straps that are wide and adjustable. Ensure that the pressure caused by the straps does not cause discomfort.

One easy way to alleviate any unnecessary weight is to regularly empty your wallet of coins.

Go light with briefcases

When choosing a briefcase, avoid selecting one made of heavy material such as leather. Instead, select a briefcase made of lighter materials such as micro fiber and nylon. Make sure to always pack the heaviest items at the bottom of your bag and make use of built-in compartments to distribute weight evenly.

Lynda G. Williamson is an occupational therapist, certified hand therapist and certified ergonomics assessment specialist. She owns Strait Occupational & Hand Therapy at 708 S. Race St. Suite C, Port Angeles. For more information, call 417-0703.

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