Back to school without pain

With schools back in session, you may be starting to hear complaints that your child is already experiencing back or shoulder pain. Children head to school with backpacks loaded with books, lunch bags, projects, sports equipment and changes of clothes. Too often we see children in physical and occupational therapy who have been dealing with upper and lower back pain, as well as shoulder issues, due to spine overload and poor postural strength. The average student will spend as much as a quarter of their day moving to and from school and throughout school, sometimes carrying nearly half their body weight on their back. So, how do we “lighten the load” on our children as they start out another school year?

One of the first areas to address is the choice of backpack itself. Often times, children grow many inches in a single year, especially during middle school and high school. We address changes in cleat size, padding size and uniform size, so shouldn’t we address backpack fitting? Backpacks often come in three sizes; preschool, junior, and adult. A simple way to check the fit is to see where the lowest part of the backpack falls when loaded, as it should be no more than 4” below waist level. Straps should be well padded and if your child is of smaller stature for their grade level, choosing a bag with a waist strap will help distribute the load. Always avoid carrying a standard back pack over one shoulder as this can increase risk for not only back pain, but a secondary scoliosis over time.

Educating the student on how to load the bag itself also has an impact. Heaviest books/items should be loaded closest to the spine with lighter items toward the outside of the bag. Make sure that the load does not exceed 15% of the child’s body weight if possible by reminding them to only carry books they will need for that day’s classes vs “storing” books in their bags they do not need that day.

Once the student has reached his or her destination with their bag, the next issue arises which is sitting posture. This has an equal impact on muscle strain and overload as many schools now utilize “double blocks” throughout the day, often requiring more than 1 hour of continuous sitting. Two simple reminders can help: 1. Keep feet flat on the floor during long sitting periods and 2. Do not cross legs, which will help maintain a neutral spine and reduce load on the sacrum and low back.

Certain aches and pains can be expected from extended sitting in the school environment, but the best advice is to truly listen to our children and students. Be sure to quickly address spine related pain by following the tips above, and seeing your pediatrician or therapist for a professional evaluation to prevent more serious problems in the future. — Leslie Weissman OTR/L, CHT and Shawn Tuthill MSPT, CSCS

 

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