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Back(pack) to school: Pick the right pack and keep aches and pains at bay

Has this ever happened to you a few weeks into the new school year?

Your son comes home complaining of neck, back or shoulder pain. Your daughter keeps getting tension headaches.

Maybe it’s the new sleep schedule or a return to school sports.

Or maybe it’s that backpack you mindlessly bought on sale in the frenzy of the back-to-school shopping crunch.

“Just awareness from parents, teachers, anyone related to the schools, can be part of the solution.” Joseph Baumgarden, a physical therapist and manager of AthletiCare of Kenmore Mercy Hospital in the Town of Tonawanda

“Just awareness from parents, teachers, anyone related to the schools, can be part of the solution.”
Joseph Baumgarden, a physical therapist and manager of AthletiCare of Kenmore Mercy Hospital in the Town of Tonawanda

Joseph Baumgarden often sees fallout from the latter as summer slips into fall – including at home, where he has sometimes wondered why his 9- and 15-year-old daughters have crammed their backpacks to the breaking point.

“Sometimes, I can barely lift them,” said Baumgarden, a physical therapist and manager of AthletiCare, a rehab department of Kenmore Mercy Hospital.

“When a heavy weight, such as a backpack filled with books, is incorrectly placed on anyone’s shoulders, the weight’s force can pull an individual backward,” he said. “To compensate, a child may bend forward at the hips or arch the back, which can cause the spine to compress unnaturally. The heavy weight might cause some children to develop shoulder, neck and back pain. Kids also can get tension headaches because of the pull on their neck and shoulders.”

Backpack-related aches and pains tend to be muscular in nature and can be long-lasting if not addressed.

“They’re probably more common than realized because you might not attribute it to a the use of a backpack,” Baumgarden said. “Just awareness from parents, teachers, anyone related to the schools, can be part of the solution.”

The best thing to do before the start of the school year, experts said, is to get out front of potential backpack woes. Here’s how.

WHEN BUYING

Pockets in Jessica Cwierley’s backpack help keep her organized.

Pockets in Jessica Cwierley’s backpack help keep her organized.

Function beats looks:  “Your child might want the backpack that features a character from their favorite TV show, movie or game,” said Dr. Matthew Bartels, a practicing pediatrician and Univera Healthcare chief medical officer for health care improvement. “But parents also may want to consider backpacks that won’t hurt their child’s back.” They also should be the appropriate size for your child.

Think lightweight: Any reduction in weight is good, Baumgarden said, “but you want it to be durable enough that it’s not going to rip halfway through the year.” Leather packs look cool, he said, but weigh more than canvas backpacks.

Two wide shoulder straps:  The thicker the strap, the better the backpack, Bartels said. “If you have thinner straps,” added Baumgarden, “like some of the quick, on-the-go packs do right now with narrow ropes, what you have in the bag will dig into your shoulders.”

Padded back: Provides more comfort and protects kids from being poked by sharp edges on objects inside the pack.

Waist belt: These are more common in hiking packs, Baumgarden said, “but if you can find a backpack that straps around your waist it will help offset the load on your shoulders and neck.”

Multiple compartments: This helps with weight distribution, Baumgarden said, “and you don’t have to dig to the bottom of the pack.”

Packs on wheels: This may be an option for students who have to lug really heavy loads, Baumgarden said, but they’re difficult to pull up stairs and roll through snow. Some schools prohibit them, too, because they can be a tripping hazard in hallways.

WHEN USING

Wearing a backpack properly can spare children, and adults, from neck, back and shoulder pain.

Wearing a backpack properly can spare children, and adults, from neck, back and shoulder pain.

Carry it right: Always use both well-padded shoulder straps to distribute the weight of the backpack across a child’s back. “When you use one shoulder,” Baumgarden said, “you can develop an imbalance in your muscles and posture. It’s the same thing with women who carry heavy purses on one side all of the time. We usually tell people to alternate.”

Tighten the straps: To keep the load closer to the back.

Organize items: Pack heavier things low and toward the center. “This way, the heavier materials are closer to your body and easier leverage-wise,” Baumgarden said.

Pack light: A backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 10 percent of your body weight, Baumgarden and Bartels said. Remove and carry a heavy item or two if the backpack is too heavy. “If you’re carrying books around all day and you have time to stop at your locker – or for college students, their car or dorm room – it’s better to leave what you don’t need,” Baumgarden said.

Lift properly: Bend at the knees when picking up a backpack, Baumgarden said. “Avoid twisting your body. Turn your feet to move.”

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WHAT THE CWIERLEYS BOUGHT

Jessica Cwierley and her mother, Dawn, have been working on the proper use of a backpack in preparation for the upcoming school year.

Jessica Cwierley and her mother, Dawn, have been working on the proper use of a backpack in preparation for the upcoming school year.

Dawn Cwierley came armed with advice from Baumgarden, her co-worker, when she went backpack shopping for her daughter, Jessica, earlier this week.

Cwierley, public relations manager at Kenmore Mercy Hospital, bought a JanSport, which normally costs $50, on sale and with a coupon for $35 at Office Depot.

“That particular brand has a lifetime warranty,” she said. “Since Jessica is 6, that will be great moving forward.”

The shopping trip with her daughter had its moments.

“Of course, she begged and pleaded with me to get a ‘Frozen’ or princess backpack,” Cwierley said. “Those did, in fact, have thin straps and no padding at all. I also found that because she is still small, pulling the straps tight on most brands of backpacks was difficult. To pull them all the way, the straps dragged below her knees.”

Jessica will start first grade early next month at Willow Ridge Elementary School in the Sweet Home district and also is in an Amherst after-school program. Since she got her first backpack in kindergarten, her mother has encouraged her to always wear it with both straps over her shoulders, pulled tightly. They’ve packed it together for day camps this summer, to help prepare for the new school year.

“I reiterate that she needs to unpack her bag each night and take out items that she doesn’t need in it,” Cwierley said. “It can easily get full of glittery art projects, changes of clothes and homework, making it bulkier. I also try to be sure that she has school supplies at home so she doesn’t need to bring things like scissors, crayons, pencils, etc ... home to work on projects. This helps to lighten the load significantly.”

Baumgarden, manager of AthletiCare, said these daily choices limit the long-term, backpack-related strains that bring school-aged kids into his Town of Tonawanda rehab center. Saving a few bucks on an inferior backpack, he said, isn’t worth the co-pays and other medical expenses.

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