Back to School doesn’t have to be a Pain in the Neck
While your kids may have started to drag their feet, the end of summer is bound to put more spring back in your step. In the not too far future, care-free days will be traded for books and homework as the younger generations head back to school or university. Unfortunately, chances are high of him (or her) encountering chronic back pain, strains and more serious spinal conditions – and not always for the reasons you may think.
One of the largest (and maybe most obvious) factors contributing to early and pre adult back and neck pain is heavy, incorrectly packed and oversized backpacks.
Studies show that kids aged 12 and older have an increased risk of back problems compared to those below that threshold, and nearly a third of all teenagers will suffer from recurring back pain at some point1. The prevalence of nonspecific back pain increases dramatically during adolescence from less than 10% in pre-teen years up to 50% in 15-16 year olds. There is widespread concern that heavy backpacks carried by adolescents contribute to the development of back pain2.
While backpacks (for any age) should weigh about 10% of your body weight, nearly 80% of youths are still carrying bags weighing nearly double that (17-19% of body weight). In fact, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that more than 8,300 kids 5-18 years old were treated in hospitals and doctors' offices for injuries related to backpacks in 20145.
To put things in a larger perspective, more than 79 million students across the US carry heavy loads causing lower back and neck pain that often last into adulthood. Out of those, 90% have bad posture when carrying bags and 75% don’t utilize the bags ergonomic features.
When we consider the implication of backpacks on the health and future health of young spines, we must also factor in the significant contribution that sitting at desks and over electronic or mobile devices are responsible for.
The average child spends 15,000 hours sitting on chairs during their school life and in the slowed-down life of a kid, one in which math class feels like it outlast all six seasons of Game of Thrones, that’s a really, really long time. The standard school chair slopes backwards by about five degrees, leading to hunching, slumping or poor posture and increased risk of back pain that can also carry into adulthood3.
The Biomechanics and Functional Morphology Laboratory, at the University of Lisbon, carried out a cross-sectional study to examine the effect of a mismatch between school furniture dimensions, the weight of their school bags and the student's anthropometric characteristics.
They found that almost two thirds of the students studied suffered from back pain and that large differences between desk height and elbow height was associated with a greater likelihood of adolescents having this problem. Girls were slightly more likely to suffer from the desk height discrepancy than males.
While improving the ergonomics of the classroom is a step in the right direction to alleviating poor posture and back pain, if you think ousting the backpack or heavy books all together and opting for more light weight, streamlined laptops and tablets is the answer, think again.
On any given day, teens across the US spend about 9 hours using media for their entertainment. This number doesn’t include time spent using media at school or for their homework4. Putting those nine hours into context means that teens are spending more time hunched over electronic devices than they do sleeping or spending time with parents or teachers.
Common Sense Media identified tweens, 8-12 year olds, to spend about four and a half hours consuming media on screens – this includes laptops, smartphones and tablets – while teens average about six and a half hours. This basically boils down to mobile devices accounting for 41% and 46% of all screen time respectively4. That’s A LOT of hunching, bending and looking down.
So why should parents get all bent out of shape over this? The use of these devices influences our posture and body mechanics in unhealthy ways that contribute to neck, upper back, shoulder and arm pain. Mobile or portable gaming device usage can double or triple the weight of your kids’ head and strain their neck. Typically, an adult human head weighs about 10-12 lbs. As the head tilts or angles forward, the cervical spine’s (neck) muscles, tendons and ligaments support the head during movement and when static. Even the neck’s intervertebral discs are involved and help absorb and distribute the forces exerted on the neck6.
An article published in Surgical Technology International reported that even a slight increase of 15 degrees to your head can equate to nearly tripling the weight of your head. At 30 degrees forward, the strain on the neck equals a 40 lb. head while a 45 degree forward angle equals about 49 lbs of strain. Now consider the fact that the average youth is holding their head in one of these forward positions for 9 hours out of every day! Add to that the fact that we round our shoulders as we tilt our heads and you have a recipe for inevitably poor posture. All this excess strain also creates extra wear and tear on the structures of the neck, upper spine and back and contributes to or leads to spinal degeneration that may require surgery or cause chronic back problems6.
Better Back Safety
There are a number of ways you can help to ensure less strain on backs and neck caused from backpacks and the use of electronic and mobile devices. We’ve listed just a few below. However, if you or your child are already experiencing any pain or discomfort resulting from backpack use, poor posture or over use of electronic devices, call your chiropractor today.
Chiropractors are licensed and trained to diagnose and treat patients of all ages and will use a gentler type of treatment for children. Doctors of chiropractic can also prescribe exercises designed to develop and strengthen muscles, along with instruction in good nutrition, posture and sleeping habits.
Better Back Safety Checklist:
- Properly fit and buy the right backpack for your kids – see our ‘How To Fit a Backpack’ instructions.
- Don’t overload backpacks – ensure kids aren’t carrying more than 10% of their bodyweight. Use lockers and take only what you need to/from school. Check out this info for more in depth ways to pack and carry a bag.
- Don’t forget posture – watch this video for quick way to improve posture at the desk
- Don’t stress! – when kids feel stressed or overwhelmed they tend to tense up, adding to the hours hunching over a desk to contribute further strain on our necks, backs and shoulders. Encourage positive ways of dealing with stress through regular exercise.
- Buy comfortable, properly fitting shoes – not flip flops or flats
- Ergonomics!Ergonomics!Ergonomics! – Don’t forget to always wear BOTH straps, choose backpacks with wide padded straps and don’t let the backpack hang lower than4 inches below the waist.
Check out our other articles for more information and tips about Better Back Health.