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NewsTribune photo/Lindsay Vaughn Health professionals recommend carrying 10 percent of your body weight in a backpack, but many students carry much more. Kate Morrow of Princeton thought she was carrying 15-20 pounds but weighing it on a bathroom scale revealed it was almost 25 pounds.
PRINCETON — Parents may be pleased to see their children bringing textbooks home to study, but they should be aware of how heavy their kids’ backpacks are and how they are carrying them. Dr. Barb Swalve of Princeton Chiropractic Center said these can be major concerns. “Something simple has a lot of long-term effects, because we’re talking about a young, developing spine,” Swalve said. Christine Layhew, a physical therapist at Illinois Valley Community Hospital, said children should safely be able to carry 10 percent of their body weight in a properly-fitted backpack. “On average, a kindergartner is 35-45 pounds, so we’re looking at three to four pounds. A fifth-grader is about 60-80 pounds, so six to eight pounds,” she said. But many children and teens carry much more. Kim Frey of Princeton has three sons, and the backpack her oldest son, a high school freshman, carries gets pretty heavy, probably 20 to 25 pounds, she estimated. In the future, she said, technology might help lighten the load as students give up textbooks for iPads, but not yet. “Technology just adds to the weight. With a laptop and all the cords, it does not make anything better,” she said. Her son can’t take his laptop to class, but her boys don’t just use their backpacks for school. If he wants to take his laptop anywhere else, into the bag and onto his back it goes. Children’s bodies still are developing until around age 18, Layhew said. Carrying too much weight, or carrying it improperly, can injure muscles and joints, causing back, neck and shoulder pain, she said, but significant long-term effects also may result. Wearing a heavy backpack can change a person’s posture as he leans his head down and trunk forward to compensate for the weight on his back. A person carrying a heavy bag over just one shoulder will lean to one side, causing the shoulders and hips to become uneven and possibly contributing to scoliosis, Layhew said. “Carrying a heavy backpack on one side causes lateral trunk bending, which causes curvature of the spine,” she explained. Swalve said curvature in the spine can create all sorts of anatomical problems, from pinching nerves and making muscles weaker on one side to affecting the development and function of organs that are compressed by the extra weight. The compression of the ribs can affect breathing, she said. “If somebody’s asthmatic and they’re not inflating the lungs as much as they would, it could actually cause breathing problems or stimulate an asthma attack,” Swalve said. Digestion also can be affected. “Because of that compression of the spine, the diaphragm is being exerted down on the stomach which does not allow proper filling,” she explained. Rolling backpacks may be a healthier option, but when choosing a traditional backpack, select one with wide, padded straps. Wearing a backpack properly is key. Layhew advises tightening the straps so the pack is snug against the back, not letting the bottom of the pack fall below waist level, and wearing the straps over both shoulders, not just one. “You want to carry it higher and keep it to the trunk where you’re stronger. It’s all about distributing the weight evenly,” she said. Princeton High School senior Kate Morrow tries to practice the two-shoulder rule. “I try to be really good about having it on two shoulders. My mom always tells me it’s going to hurt my back if it’s only on one shoulder, so if it’s really heavy, I’ll be good about that,” she said. On a light day her backpack only weighs about eight pounds, but other days, the extra textbooks add up. “On a bad day, it’s anywhere from 15 to 20 (pounds),” she said. Or more. When she put her bag on the bathroom scale to see how much weight she really was carrying, the needle approached 25 pounds. And that weight is only from her school supplies. She carries everything she needs for her extracurricular activities in a separate duffel bag. “I’ll have some days where I have my backpack, my duffel and an armful of books because they don’t all fit. Those are the days that the walk to my car is really long,” she said. Parents can observe their children for postural changes by watching them stand and walk while wearing their backpacks. “If the child can stand up straight and look like they have good posture and carry it, fine. But as soon as you start to see postural changes, see one shoulder down lower, see the hips uneven or notice a curve of the spine when the child bends over, go to a professional,” Swalve said.
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