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Heavy Backpacks Can Hurt Students' Backs

Lighten the Load to Avoid Pain, Say Experts

WebMD Health News

Aug. 13, 2004 - With back-to-school season here, parents and students should make sure heavy backpacks aren't too much of a burden.

Shouldering a hefty load can cause back pain, according to a study by researchers at the University of California in Riverside.

The study was led by David Siambanes, DO, of the Inland Empire Spine Center in Riverside, Calif. Participants were 3,500 students aged 11 to 15 at four middle schools in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Researchers weighed the children's backpacks and asked the kids how often they used their backpacks and how much pain, if any, they felt as a result.

Most students said they hurt, at least a bit, from their backpacks; 64% reported having back pain at some time. Two of every five children said they felt pain while wearing their backpacks. In students reporting pain, about 12% said it was "not bad," while almost 90% said their back pain was "bad" or "very bad."

Of those reporting back pain, 21% said their pain lasted more than six months. About 16% said they had missed school, gym class, or after-school sports because of the pain, and almost 17% said they had seen a doctor for their back pain. Most students with back pain said the pain was recurrent.

Lighten the Load

"Students carrying heavier backpacks relative to their body weight were more likely to report back pain," write the researchers in the March/April 2004 issue of the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics.

How much is too much? Pain was associated with wearing a backpack weighing more than 20% of the student's body weight, write the researchers.

Girls were significantly more likely to report back pain than boys. And while few students carried their backpacks in their hands, those that did tended to have more severe pain requiring them to miss class.

This study did not track long-term back injuries resulting from backpacks. However, "research has shown that adults with severe back problems often had pain as kids," says Siambanes in a news release.

Here are some back-protecting tips for kids of all sizes:

  • Use rolling backpacks.
  • Choose backpacks ending above the waist, with padded shoulder straps and a belt.
  • Wear backpacks on both shoulders.
  • Pull the shoulder straps snug.
  • Place heavier books closest to the back.
  • Bend your knees when lifting the backpack.
  • Get a second set of schoolbooks to keep at home.
  • Carry only what's necessary each day.

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