Choosing the Right Backpack

By physiotherapist Christina Eng

How to choose the right back pack for your child from a physiotherapistIt’s that time of year again, and students are heading back to school. Backpacks are one of the best ways to haul stuff around however, carrying an overloaded backpack or wearing one improperly can lead to pain, poor posture, imbalance, over-stretching of the soft tissue in your neck and back, compression to the spine, nerves, shoulders or arms, and unnecessary strain on muscles and joints.

Reduce these strains by using and fitting a backpack that works for you rather than against you. Look for the following features:

1. Padded back – to reduce pressure and prevent the pack’s contents from digging into your back.

2. Padded, contoured, shoulder and chest straps – to help reduce pressure and balance the weight. Look for a backpack with thickly padded adjustable shoulder straps (2 inches wide) and an extra hip strap. Adjust the shoulder straps so the bottom of the pack sits two inches above your waist.

3. Waist belt or hip strap – to help distribute some of the load to the pelvis. The waist belt sends some weight of your pack down through your legs, so you won’t get tired as quickly.

4. Compression straps – on the sides or bottom of the pack to help compress the contents and stabilize the articles (see picture). Pack by weight, not size. Instead of folders or binders, put the heaviest books closest to your back.

5. Reflective material – for visibility to drivers at night. 
Backpacks are designed to distribute the load evenly. When worn correctly and not overloaded, a backpack is supported by some of the strongest muscles in the body: the back and abdominal muscles that stabilize the trunk and hold the body in proper balance and postural alignment. Here are some tips for safe backpack use:
• Use both shoulder straps to help distribute the weight of the pack evenly and to promote a more normal posture.

• Make sure the backpack isn’t too heavy. Choose a pack made of lightweight materials, like canvas, to reduce the weight you will be carrying. A full backpack should never weigh more than 15 per cent of your body weight.

• Fit the backpack to the person, not the person to the backpack. The shoulder straps should fit comfortably and not dig in to the shoulder or arm, allowing the arms to move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest in the contour of the lower back. The pack should “sit” evenly in the middle of the back, not “sag down” toward the buttocks. Backpacks for hiking and camping provide additional support through frames and special straps. Be sure to buy the right backpack for your body.
Teach your children how to wear a backpack properly (and why), keep the load to a minimum and look for the following signs:

• Pain when wearing the backpack;
• Tingling or numbness in the arms; and
• Red marks on the shoulders.
Above all, parents should encourage children to say if they have any pain or discomfort before it becomes a serious problem.