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Back Pain - Are School Bags Wrecking Our Children's Spines?

As children's spines are growing and developing, it is vitally important to prevent stress and dysfunction as a result of poorly designed schoolbags. Incorrectly carrying a school bag can interrupt the natural curve of the spine resulting in strain of the shoulders and neck, headaches, back pain, hip and leg pain.

The high number of adolescents reporting regular episodes of back, neck and shoulder pain are of concern worldwide. Findings from recent Australian research are just as disturbing:

• South Australian studies into the spinal health of more than 2500 school students found about half of them repeatedly reported recent episodes of spinal pain.

• Victorian studies found that one in three school students suffered significant back or neck pain, often thought to be caused by carrying heavy schoolbags (almost half of the students carried bags weighing more than 10% of their body weight).

• Poor posture when carrying a backpack is one of the intrinsic risk factors for spinal problems and it is magnified if students repeatedly carry a heavy load, carry it poorly or for too long at a time.

• Providing them with a good back pack is crucial but educating them on how to use it appropriately is just as vital.

In recent years there has been a marked increase in the numbers of students presenting to us with back pain and the issue of carrying a suitable backpack emerges, once again. Personally, I believe that educational institutions should be increasing the use of CD's, DVD's and e-books. However, until this becomes the norm we need to address the issues of carrying heavy books and equipment to and from school in such a way that minimises the risks of long term damage.

School is for learning - not for the beginnings of spinal damage!!!

Damage is caused by:

• A school bag that weighs more than 10% of the child's weight

• Carrying the bag over one shoulder

• Holding the bag in one hand by it's strap

• An incorrectly packed backpack

• An incorrectly fitted backpack

• Carrying too many bags and instruments to school

Our children will be attending school for many years - the last thing we want to do is to take away the very opportunities that we give them by limiting their career prospects with health issues.

There is a limit to how much weight can be carried in a backpack. Research shows that, where possible, backpack weights should be less than 10% of body weight. This equates to around:

3.9 kgs for 12-13 year olds 4.3 kgs for 14-15 year olds 4.8 kgs for 16-17 year olds

Research in Victoria found that an amazing 46% of children carry bags in excess of this recommendation whilst 12% carry up to 20% of their body weight.

Tips to prevent back pain from carrying a back pack:

• Plan ahead. Don't let kids carry lots of equipment at the same time, like sports gear, musical instruments or art materials.

• Consider more than looks when choosing a school bag. An ill-fitting backpack can cause back pain, muscle strain, or nerve impingement.

• Make sure the backpack is sturdy and appropriately sized; packs have varying back lengths and widths so they do not slip around during movement.

• Look for backpacks with wide, padded shoulder straps which ergonomically contour to the child's body, additional waist or chest straps will help keep the load close to the body and help maintain proper balance. The bag should never be wider than chest width and the backpack should not be any lower than the hollow of the lower back.

• Encourage your child to use both shoulder straps and never sling the backpack over one shoulder.

• The proper maximum weight for loaded backpacks should not exceed 10% of the child's body weight. A good school backpack should:

• Be appropriately sized for the child. It should neither extend past their shoulders when sitting down with it, nor be wider than their chest.

• Be comparatively lightweight. Fully packed it shouldn't weigh more than 10% of the child's body weight (that's the lean body weight, so it's even less for overweight children).

• Be sturdy and reasonably water-resistant (or have a rain cover). The material should be firm to prevent sagging. The base should be abrasive-resistant and/or reinforced.

• Have a moulded frame and/or an adjustable hip or waist strap, so most of the weight rests on the hips and pelvis, not on the shoulders and spine. The waist/hip belt is particularly important to secure the load when walking, running or cycling.

• Have adjustable, broad, padded shoulder straps that help distribute the weight evenly and don't dig into the wearer.

• Have a padded or quilted back for comfortable wear.

• Have compression straps at the sides to draw the load together and bring it close to the child's back. They'll also help stabilise the contents of a partially filled pack.

• Have a sternum (chest) strap to help stabilise the load and prevent the straps slipping off the shoulders. It should sit about 10 cm down from the Adam's apple. (Look for a detachable strap if you're not sure your child will wear it.)

• Have several pockets to help with even weight distribution and organisation inside. A drink bottle holder on the side keeps potential spillages outside the pack. Using it properly.

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