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Backpack Shopping 101: Tips to Avoid a Pain in the Neck

Bethesda, MD (Aug. 13, 2014)—Think the books and school supplies that your child is carrying in a backpack slung haphazardly across one shoulder are harmless? Think again. Heavy loads carried by more than 79 million students across the U.S. can cause low back pain that often lasts through adulthood. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2013 nearly 22,000 strains, sprains, dislocations, and fractures from backpacks were treated in hospital emergency rooms, physicians’ offices, and clinics.

“A child wearing a backpack incorrectly or that is too heavy can be contributing risk factors for discomfort, fatigue, muscle soreness, and musculoskeletal pain especially in the lower back,” says Karen Jacobs, EdD, OTR/L, CPE, clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University, and an expert on school ergonomics and healthy growth and development of school-age children.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) urges parents and caregivers to consider the following when selecting a backpack this school year:

  • Appropriate size. Make sure the height of the backpack extends from approximately 2 inches below the shoulder blades to waist level, or slightly above the waist.
  • Shoulders. Backpacks should have well-padded shoulder straps that can be worn on both shoulders so when packed with books, the weight can be evenly balanced by the student.
  • Hip belt. Backpacks with a hip or chest belt take some strain off sensitive neck and shoulder muscles and improve the student’s balance.
  • Fit. Just as your child will try on clothes and shoes when back-to-school shopping, experts say it is important to try on backpacks, too. “The right fit should be your top criteria when selecting your child’s backpack,” says Jacobs. “If you order online, be sure that the seller has a return policy just in case the backpack is not quite the best fit for your child and needs to be exchanged.”

When school is back in session, check that the child’s backpack weighs no more than 10% of his or her body weight. If it weighs more, determine what supplies can stay at home or at school each day to lessen the load. If the backpack is still too heavy for the child, consider a book bag on wheels.

Thousands of students, educators, parents, and health professionals will mark AOTA’s National School Backpack Awareness Day on Sept. 17 with backpack weigh-ins, backpack check-ups, activities, and special events. In addition, AOTA offers ergonomic strategies for adults when wearing a purse, carrying a briefcase, and carrying a suitcase.

To learn more about National School Backpack Awareness Day, visit www.aota.org/backpack.

Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, go to www.aota.org.

To interview Karen Jacobs or another occupational therapy practitioner who specializes in ergonomics, contact AOTA Media Relations Manager Katie Riley at 301-652-6611, ext. 2963, or kriley@aota.org.