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Heavy school bags are more than just a pain in the neck (or back), they could cause long-term spinal damage.

You may be surprised by the number of injuries doctors, chiropractors and physiotherapists treat that are caused by nothing more than heavy school bags.

With some alarm that I recently tried to fling my son’s school bag into the car boot. I was nearly floored by the Herculean effort needed just to get the bag off the ground.

Take a moment to lift your child’s bag. The dead weight of it may surprise you.  A demanding curriculum means your child often lugs numerous books  from one classroom to the next. Many children also carry extra bags packed with sports equipment, as well as bulky lunch boxes and drinks.

Bad for the spine

“Bearing such heavy loads can start a degenerative process in the spine. The consequences of this could last a lifetime,” warns Johannesburg-based chiropractor Marie Rosenberg. “Carrying a too heavy backpack or shoulder bag, especially if carried on one shoulder, can cause functional scoliosis (an abnormal curvature of the spine).  The uneven distribution of weight can result in poor posture, joint fatigue and pressure on the sacroiliac joint,” she says.

“To work out just how much weight is going through your child’s spine each time they pick up their school satchel, multiply the weight of the bag by 10,” advises Rosenberg. For example, a 4kg bag puts 40kg of weight on the spine, far too much for the average child to manage safely.

“Unfortunately, children themselves are often part of the problem,” warns Cape Town-based physiotherapist Melanie Vogel. “Often the best bags, with their padded straps and added supports, are dismissed by children as being ‘uncool’. Peer pressure to have the ‘right’ brand can lead to long-term damage. Parents need to make their children aware of this from a young age.”

Biokineticist Amy Lichtenstein says she has treated quite a few cases of school bag injuries at her Johannesburg practice. “Often children carry their bag on one side of the body. The muscles there become shorter, tighter and overdeveloped, while the other side remains in a lengthened position, which creates an imbalance.”

Find out ow to help your child achieve postive posture.

Safety tips

Choosing the right type of school bag makes a big difference. Shoulder bags are a definite no-no as children tend to carry them on one shoulder, causing strain, says Lichtenstein.

If your child insists on a backpack, make sure it has wide, padded straps that are worn over both shoulders, and a belly belt for extra support.

The best option is the wheelie bag, but even these are not perfect. They become unwieldy when fully loaded and can catch on uneven terrain, causing muscle tears and strain.

The Chiropractic Association of SA advises that the backpack should not weigh more than 10 percent of your child’s weight.

Lockers could be the answer to this weighty problem. Lichtenstein advises parents to lobby for lockers at school. “Talk to your child’s teacher about ways the school can help lighten the load children have to carry.”

Read about how to support your child’s schooling from home and understanding your child’s learning style.

Your child’s school bag may be too heavy if he has:

  • headaches;
  • dull, lower backache
  • neck ache
  • fatigue
  • bad posture.

Gillian Hurst