It is back-to-school season here in the US. One of the items on many parent’s shopping lists is a new backpack. But for kids with low muscle tone or hypermobility, backpacks can be more than a way to carry books and water bottles. They can be a source of pain, headaches, even numbness in hands and fingers. The important question isn’t how to lighten the load of a heavy backpack. It is whether these kids should be using them at all.
The standard recommendations from occupational therapists and orthopedists regarding backpacks is simple: lighten the load, use both straps (select wide straps), and make sure the heaviest items are placed close to the body. All good suggestions. But if a child already has pain or weakness around the spine and shoulder joints, less stability and endurance, and less ability to judge posture and force, then the picture changes. Using a backpack may be a significant physical risk, no matter how well designed or used.
Here are some suggestions that further minimize injury but can be acceptable to older kids who may be sensitive to being perceived as different:
- Request a set of the heaviest books for home use. This can be part of an IEP or a 504 plan, or the school may be willing to do so without anything formal on paper.
- Select the smallest size backpack possible. Stores like Land’s End and L.L. Bean here in the US are great sources for a variety of backpack sizes.
- Have your child use their backpack only for lighter items. Pick the smallest water bottles and travel sizes of anything they need. Think “weekend in Paris on a shoestring” not “trekking the Himalayas”. At least they have a backpack like the other kids.
- Teach your child to carry their pack in their arms, close to their chest, instead of wearing it. I know, that sounds weird. But if it is small, this is the smartest way to carry anything while reducing strain on backs and necks. And they still have a backpack like the other kids. A long shot, but some kids can be reminded of how awful neck and back pain really is, and how not being able to sleep or play sports is worse than carrying that pack in their arms.
- Considering a rolling case? Not so fast. The twisting of the back and the use of one arm to drag a rolling case may be worse than using a backpack. Then there is the lifting and lugging up non-ADA stairs. Out of the frying pan……
Looking for more information about hypermobility, low tone and back-to-school planning? Check out Does An Atypical Pencil Grasp Damage Joints or Support Function In Kids With Hypermobility? and Great Mechanical Pencils Can Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills. Before you wonder if all that fidgeting and leaning over the desk is a behavior problem, read Hypermobility and ADHD? Take Stability, Proprioception, Pain and Fatigue Into Account Before Labeling Behavior. There are pencil grips that can really help kids with a weak grasp, so check out The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write.