For school going children enjoying their Christmas vacation, the freedom to run, tumble, bounce and move around will soon be replaced by extended periods of sitting in class and lugging around heavy backpacks to and from school. With these demands, comes an increase in postural dysfunctions. Most of us with school going kids know how notorious they are, for slouching in chairs and hunching over to support the weight of their backpacks. But these behaviors are programming bad posture and bad movement, which can have deleterious effects down the road, experts in the field have warned. So concerned were health experts on the deteriorating spine health of school children from primary grades upto senior grades, that a special committee was set up to study the problem as a collaborative effort by the Ministry of Education and Health. This led to guidelines on a global healthy back pack for children. Although these guidelines were circulated among school authorities and parents to raise awareness, the rising incidence of poor postural problems in school children points to disregard on the part of parents due to ignorance on the negative health impacts they could cause, which could affect them for life.
For more insights into these negative health impacts, the Sunday Observer spoke to Chartered Physiotherapist and certified Paediatric Bopath therapist Dr Gopi Kitnasamy who offered some simple rules to follow when choosing the correct school bag for a child.
Q. An increasing number of Lankan children today suffer from various spine, back and neck related problems across the country. Do you see an increase in figures compared to say two decades ago?
A. As this is mainly an OPD problem statistics may not be available to say exactly how many children suffer from these conditions. But the numbers are increasing, and this is mainly due to school bags getting heavier each year. Two decades ago, we rarely heard of such complaints, because children were able to pack all their books they needed for their classroom work into one small suitcase. As back packs were not so common then, children did not have to carry excessive weight on their back. Today, the text books and workbooks are much bigger and heavier. Since school teachers insist they bring all their text books to school daily, children have to lug them back and forth every day. All this extra weight carried on their backs could easily lead to serious back related problems.
Q. What kind of problems can arise from young children carrying overloaded backpacks?
A. Not only does overloading a backpack cause problems, backpacks which don’t fit properly, can also lead to a variety of injuries to the neck, hands and other related areas of the body. Neck pain, muscle spasms, tingling hands, headaches and lower back pain are some of the most common symptoms.
Pain may result in the increasing possibility of damage on posture and development of the spine. Downward spiral of poor posture, leads to movement dysfunctions. This in turn leads to increased risk of pain and injury and even degeneration of movements in later in life.
Q. So what can parents and kids do to help combat the effects of these unhealthy school habits? Are there certain guidelines they can follow?
A. There are a number of important issues that parents need to be aware of to prevent backpack injury and promote spinal health in their children. For example, they must be aware that there is an ideal recommended weight a child should carry in his backpack.
It is recommended that a child’s backpack (loaded) weigh no more than 15-20 percent of their own body weight. 15- 20 Percent Maximum Weight: This means a child who weighs 40 kgs shouldn’t wear a loaded school backpack heavier than 6- 8 kgs.
Q. What in your opinion is the correct backpack for a child? What advice do you have for parents in this regard?
A. When choosing the correct backpack parents should try to follow the rules given below:
1. A padded back will minimize direct pressure on the back.
2. Wide padded shoulder straps which will not hinder circulation to the arms which may cause numbness and tingling.
3. Waist and chest belts to transfer some weight from the back and shoulders to the trunk and pelvis.
4. Multiple compartments to better distribute the weight in the backpack.
5. Reflective material to enhance visibility at night.
6. Lightweight backpack
7. Correct Size: selection of the pack is important as packs come in different sizes for different aged children.
Q. Is arranging and packing a back pack correctly as important as buying the right kind of backpack for a school going child?
A. Yes indeed.
Q. In that case, could you tell us in detail how exactly a backpack should be arranged and packed? Most children carry a water bottle, lunch box and instrument boxes along with the heavier items like school books inside the bag. How should these items be packed without placing excessive weight on the back?
A. Follow the rules given below:
1. Load heaviest items closest to the child’s back.
2. Arrange books and materials securely.
3. Pack only necessary items that you will need for the school day.
4. If the backpack is too heavy, consider using a bag with wheels.
Q. Once packed, are there guidelines regarding wearing the backpack and positioning it correctly as well?
A. Wearing a backpack correctly is also very important if you want to avoid posture problems in your child. This can be done by :
1. Wearing both straps. Some children tend to wear only one strap over their shoulder. But parents must insist they wear both straps. By wearing two shoulder straps, the weight of the backpack is better distributed, and a well-aligned symmetrical posture is promoted. Using only one strap will put all the weight on one shoulder and one side of the body.
2. Tighten the straps. Adjust the shoulder straps so that the pack fits snugly to the child’s back while still allowing the pack to be put on and taken off easily. A pack that hangs loosely from the back can pull the child backwards and strain muscles.
3. Put on and remove backpacks carefully. Keep the trunk of your body stable and avoid excessive twisting.
4. Wear the backpack over the strongest mid-back muscles. Pay close attention to the way the backpack is positioned on the back. It shouldn’t be sagging below the hips, which tends to pull the child backward, causing him to hunch their backs to lean forward.
5. Lift properly using your legs (without bending the back) and both hands applying one strap and then the other.
Q. Any other advice to parents?
A. Encourage activity. Children who are active tend to have better muscle flexibility and strength, which makes it easier to carry a backpack.