Are you sending your child off to the first day of school with a brand-new backpack slung over his or her shoulder?

Are you sending your child off to the first day of school with a brand-new backpack slung over his or her shoulder? If you're like most parents, a new backpack was on your child's back-to-school shopping list. Although these bags have become as common as pencils and chalkboards in schools across the country new research reveals an alarming danger associated with childhood backpack use.
Twelve pounds in an average child's backpack X 10 lifts per day = 120 pounds per day X 180 school days per year = 21,600 pounds lifted in one school year. That's nearly 11 tons of weight, the equivalent of six mid-sized automobiles.
This research stems from the increasing number of reports of childhood back pain in recent decades. By the end of their teen years, more than 50 percent of youth experience at least one low-back pain episode. And new research indicates that this increase may be due, at least in part, to the improper use of backpacks.
But you don't need to be a scientist to understand the effect of backpacks on young spines; watch children in any schoolyard struggle to walk while bent sideways under the weight of an overloaded backpack on one shoulder — you'll quickly realize the potential danger of this commonplace item.
How exactly does carrying a backpack affect the spine?
"Common sense tells us that a heavy load, distributed improperly or unevenly, day after day, is indeed going to cause stress to a growing spinal column," explains Dr. Marvin T. Arnsdorff, chiropractor and co-founder of the Backpack Safety America school education program. "The old adage ‘as the twig is bent, so grows the tree' comes to mind. We are seeing a growing concern about the improper use of backpacks and the relatively scarce amount of instructional and preventive information available to young people."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 4,928 emergency room visits each year result from injuries related to book bags and back carriers. And schlepping around a backpack can cause not only acute injury, but also long-term damage.
But your child doesn't have to be the only "uncool" kid without a backpack this fall. Here are five winning tips from experts at the Backpack Safety America program.
1) Ensure that your child's backpack is sturdy and appropriately sized. Some manufacturers offer special child-sized versions for children ages five to ten. These packs weigh less than a pound and have shorter back lengths and widths to prevent slippage. Consider using a rolling pack with wheels.
2) Consider more than looks when choosing a backpack. An ill-fitting pack can cause back pain, muscle strain or nerve impingement. To help distribute the load, look for packs with padded shoulder straps and waist straps.
3) Ensure that the weight of your child's pack does not exceed 15 percent of his or her body weight.
4) Avoid overloading by prioritizing the items your child carries and eliminating unnecessary contents.
5) Teach your youngster to pack his or her backpack by evenly distributing the contents throughout the pack. Pack the heaviest items close to your back, packing neatly and trying to keep items from shifting around.
6) Insist that your child never carry a backpack on one shoulder. Both shoulder straps — as well as the waist strap — should be used at all times. Hauling a heavy backpack over one shoulder every day may provoke serious postural misalignments.
7) Lift your backpack as you would any heavy load: by bending at the knees and lifting with both legs. Or have a friend position it on your back. A backpack should be positioned with the bottom about two inches above your waist.
8) Add back exercises to your daily regimen. Abdominal crunches help strengthen stomach muscles that support the spine. During long periods of sitting, try to stand once every 20 minutes or so to reduce the stress on spinal discs. This brief stretch helps keep fluid in the discs and increases blood flow.
Take a look: Are your kids staggering? Now that they're back in school, it's likely the books, lunches, calculators, water bottles, notebooks and gym clothes stuffed into their backpacks may be weighing them down and putting too much stress on backs and shoulders. Fix the backpack situation now rather than later you'll be glad you did.  

Jana McKinney is a McPherson County Extension agent for family and consumer sciences.