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Health & Parenting

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Pain in the Backpack

How heavy backpacks are weighing down today's kids.

WebMD Feature

Alexa Sloan, a slim 16-year-old, carries her world in a backpack. Slung fashionably over her shoulder, it contains several textbooks, her notebooks, day planner, lunch, posters, and school projects such as the 3-D model of a cell membrane that she created for biology class.

Sloan, a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD, typically carries 25 to 30 pounds in her black one-strap backpack. Too heavy, she knows, but she's reluctant to forego the convenience offered by her backpack.

"I have shoulder pains. There's a sore, pulling feeling, and I worry about my spine being bent over all crooked under the weight," she says. "But I don't really have a choice. There?s not enough time between classes to go to my locker."

Although Sloan has considered -- but for now rejected -- seeking medical attention, many other young people and their worried parents are consulting physicians about muscle strains thought to be due to carrying heavy backpacks.

"We are seeing students in the fourth and fifth grades who are complaining about backaches, fatigue, and [physical] stress," says Russell Windsor, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery. "They just don't have the body strength to remain erect under these very substantial loads, and it puts their skeletons under substantial duress."

Survey Bears Out Backpack/Pain Link

After hearing colleagues and even her own 13-year-old daughter discuss problems with backpacks, Charlotte Alexander, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Houston, conducted a survey of more than 100 doctors in Chicago and Wilmington, DE, in 1999. She found that almost 60% of the orthopedists reported seeing child patients with back and shoulder pain caused by heavy backpacks. Alexander?s findings were presented at an October 1999 press conference held by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

"Overloaded backpacks are contributing to increased visits to doctors? offices," Alexander says. "The extra stress placed on the spine and shoulders from the heavy loads is causing some unnecessary medical problems in children."

Long-Term Outlook Unclear

While there is abundant evidence that backpacks can cause short-term problems, it's unclear whether they may cause permanent orthopedic conditions such as scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, or long-term damage to still-developing skeletons.

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