Does your child come home and complain about back pain? It appears odd that at such a young age they are suffering from something that seems reserved for adults and the aging population. But think about it. School kids are carrying around loaded bags every day of the school week and they are usually overloaded or the wrong bag entirely. As adults, many of us go to work where our computer is waiting for us without the need to carry around textbooks and binders. Until each student is set up with their own personal computer this isn't a problem we are going to escape easily. But there are ways we can minimize the impact of school bags on kids.
First of all backpacks are so much better than messenger bags, shoulder bags and purses. That much is obvious. When worn correctly, backpacks distribute weight more evenly creating a healthier spine. Lets talk about anatomy for a minute. Your spine is made up of 33 bones separated by discs that act as shock absorbers. With correct posture your spine has three curves, a cervical curve, a thoracic curve and a lumbar curve. This alignment maximizes shock absorption, assists with balance and promotes optimal range of motion. Abnormal posture includes hyperkyphosis in the thoracic spine, or hunchback posture, hyperlordosis in the lumbar spine, or sway back posture, and scoliosis, which is a curve in the spine from side to side. All of these variations can be brought on by poor use of a backpack or other bag. Your children are wearing these every day, encouraging and strengthening poor posture. It takes years to build up, it could take just as long to break it back down.
So what do we do about it? Well I have a few simple tips for you to encourage proper and healthy posture for your child throughout the day.
- WEIGHT. You should try and keep the weight of your childs backpack at under 10% of your child's body weight. A heavy backpack can pull a child backwards, forcing them to bend at the hips or arch their back, which can compress their spine. This can lead to back, shoulder and neck pain.
- SHOULDER STRAPS. Your childs backpack should have two wide and padded shoulder straps. They should wear both of these straps. Wearing one strap will cause them to lean to one side and can lead to scoliosis of the spine. We want wider straps to prevent any nerve compression which could lead to numbness, tingling and weakness in the hands and arms.
- SIZE. Your childs backpack should fit them snuggly. If it is sagging below the waist, with the straps tightened, it is too big. Remember bigger isn't always better. The bigger the bag, the more they can stuff into it and believe me they will! As a student I carried pens of every colour and as many textbooks as I could fit, just in case I needed them. Now they have iPods, phones, chargers, video games, laptops etc. They will fill it up.
- MULTIPLE COMPARTMENTS. A bag should have multiple compartments so that weight can be evenly distributed. They should carry the heaviest items closest to their backs, and lighter items further away.
Now this seems like it could solve all the problems but your children may have more control over it than you think. So here is what you should encourage them to do.
- Only carry what is absolutely necessary. Make frequent stops at your locker between classes or store things in your desk. Only carry what you need for each class.
- Plan your homework. Don't wait until Friday to get everything done for the next week. This will force you to carry all your books home for the weekend.
- Lighten the load. For high school students, try carrying around a folder with loose leaf paper in it and then inserting them into your binders after class.
- Be active. Participating in other sports and activities will encourage your body to move through a wider range of motion indirectly stretching and strengthening the areas that are often ignored.
So now that we know how backpack should be worn lets talk about how to improve posture and combat some of the issues caused by wearing a backpack.
If you notice that your child becomes rounded throughout the shoulders while carrying a backpack, the first thing you are going to want to do is stretch out their pectoral muscles and open them up in their chest. A really easy stretch for this is what I call the wall or door stretch. With either one arm (on the wall), or both (in a doorway), they will place their elbow to fingertips on the wall. From there, turn their body away from that arm and they will feel a stretch through their chest. If using the doorway, lean forward, opening up in the chest. Hold for at least 30 seconds! Any stretch under 30 seconds has no effect on your connective tissue and will not solve any problems. Another very easy and passive stretch is to roll up a towel or yoga mat, place it along their spine and have them lay on their back with arms outstretched to the sides with palms up.
If you find them bending forward at the hips, encourage them to stretch out their quads. This is as simple as it sounds. Either laying down on their stomach or standing on one leg, bend at the knee so that their foot comes towards their bum. Another option, as they might need to take this a little deeper into their psoas, is a lunge stretch. With their back knee on the ground and leaning into the lunge, make sure their chest is up and almost leaning back slightly. They should feel this through the front of their leg and up through their pelvis.
Most often they will be tight in their neck as well. A simple neck stretch, even while sitting at school will make a huge difference. While grabbing on to the bottom of their chair with one hand, tilt their head to the opposite side until they feel a stretch. They can slowly rotate it to look up and down to hit different muscle fibres.
The other thing you are going to want to do is strengthen their core. I suggest turning this into a challenge. Every evening do a family plank hold and see who can hold it the longest with correct alignment (tummy in, bum down, no sway back). One person is a rockstar at it and unbeatable? Use one of those textbooks and place it on their back to make it harder (as long as they are showing correct posture). Write this time down every night and try and improve it. Maybe even have a prize for hitting targets!
As you can see there are a few things to consider when carrying a backpack but there are also some simple solutions. And remember, we also love having kids and teens as clients. We believe that it is never too early to start taking care of your body. Teach your kids to respect and listen to what their body is telling them and you will be setting them on the right path to a healthy body for life.