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Don't Overpack Kids' Backpacks

From kindergarten through graduate school, one common accessory in every classroom is the ubiquitous backpack. But lugging oversized, heavy backpacks to and from school can cause pain and injury to children's growing bodies.

According to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study, more than 75 percent of students between the ages of 8 and 12 suffer from increasing back pain caused by hauling oversized, overloaded backpacks.

Westport resident Michael R. Marks, MD, an orthopedic surgeon, president of Norwalk Hospital Physicians and Surgeons and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons , states that improper fitting, packing and wearing are the culprits in backpack injuries. "The majority of backpack-related problems are muscular and affect the upper and lower back," he says. But, Dr. Marks continues, worn improperly and for prolonged periods of time, ill-fitting and oversized backpacks can lead to musculoskeletal problems.

Among the symptoms of "backpack back" include shoulder soreness from wearing a pack on only one shoulder or from wearing one whose straps are too thin. Dr. Marks says shoulder joint problems can present themselves when straps bind across a joint with direct force. Additionally, wearing a big pack that sits too low on the body can cause bruising to the lower buttocks and upper thighs.

One condition a heavy backpack does not cause, according to Dr. Marks, is scoliosis, even though persistent rumors to that effect still circulate. "That's actually an old wives' tale," he says. Not using a backpack can create its own set of problems, he says. "There is just no room for those backpacks on wheels in crowded school hallways. I've treated children who have tripped over them while running through the hallways."

The best way to combat backpack mis-fitting and wearing, says Dr. Marks, is to remember a simple rule: "Pack it right, wear it right." He adds: "Put the heaviest and largest books closest to your back, and make sure that the well-padded straps are pulled tightly so the packs sit between the shoulder blades. Use the belt strap to prevent the pack from bouncing back and forth."

Also, a child should be able to pick up and place the pack on his or her shoulders unassisted and should be comfortable standing erect without feeling a need to bend forward at the waist to be balanced.

Sixteen-plus years of school is a long-term relationship to have with such a critical educational accessory, so Dr. Marks suggests buying one that a child will want to use year in and year out. But, he notes, students should remember that backpacks "should be just a method to transport books. There is no reason a child should be carrying around their books all day long through school. A backpack isn't a survival kit." And a kid should survive using a backpack without risk of injury.

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