The sad close of Summer—the shortest of the seasons (to kids, at least)—brings a new wave of excitement. Each new school year calls for the magical shopping trip to buy school supplies, and on especially magical years, we are able to justify the purchase of a new backpack. The purchase of a new backpack is monumental in importance, as it is to the kids an extension of themselves and an expression of their individuality. This is, of course, why every girl in my daughter’s class had to have a sequined unicorn horn sticking out the top of their backpack. My son’s backpack just had to be covered in boogery eyeballs.
I love seeing them being so expressive and have their own individual ideas and creative expression. But I cringe when I see them sling their overstuffed and completely non-ergonomic pack over their shoulders and march off, head and neck and shoulders craning forward to balance the weight they just added to their body.
In our practice we are seeing an increasing number of younger patients with severely dysfunctional cervical curves. This is not just us. It’s happening nationwide. In fact, it has been documented that the current generation of our youth has begun to develop anatomical adaptations (they are growing horns—well, not really horns) due to the huge increase in poor cervical posture from cell phone use. These postural problems are also due to behavioral changes, including sedentary lifestyle and, I would add, the ever-increasing weight of their backpacks.
Posture Issues with Backpacks
With regard to backpacks, recent research has demonstrated that a person’s posture changes noticeably when carrying a heavy backpack that lacks a supportive design. Their shoulders assume a forward rounded shape, their head and neck stretches out forward, and their thoracic and lumbar spines both exhibit a loss in curvature. Just watch your kids as they lug their backpacks and you’ll see it. I have serious concerns when I think of how my young children are being subjected to these forces while they are still growing and developing.
As for the cell phones, tablets, and sedentary lifestyle factors, that is an entire other discussion. But I do have some recommendations for you here regarding backpack selection and use:
- Don't overload their pack—I recommend that you allow your child to carry no more than 15% of their body weight in their backpack. I’ve audited my kids’ packs to find them carrying a whole arsenal of items in addition to their required school supplies and books — stacks of their favorite books, toys, Pokémon cards, even rocks! What the schools require is already enough! Check your kid’s pack and see what can be trimmed.
- Pick a quality pack—Most kids' backpacks are super cute. That’s it. They are basically art canvases with straps and zippers sewn into them as an afterthought. Be the mean parent. Make them use a pack that has an ergonomic internal frame, a sternum strap, and, most importantly, hip straps. Hip straps should not be just a piece of webbing that clips around the waist. They should be thick pads that wrap around the top of the hips allowing the weight of the pack (typically up to 90%) to be shifted from the shoulders to the pelvis.
- Make them use it properly—I still remember as a kid only using one of the backpack straps and hanging off one shoulder. So cool—and so terrible for the spine. It doesn’t help to buy a great pack of it is used improperly. Have them use the sternum strap and hip pads. Go to an outdoors store and ask them to help you fit the pack to your child (and buy something while you’re there :) ). If the pack is high quality enough to include the above features, it should also be highly adjustable and have the ability to be fitted specifically to your child.
I’ll be honest, finding a pack that is great for school books, has the proper fit ergonomics features, AND looks awesome to your kid is going to be no small feat. But here are a few options I found: