Pain in the Backpack
How heavy backpacks are weighing down today's kids.
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
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
"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
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.
"The truth is that we don't have a clue if backpacks cause [permanent]
damage," says David Skaggs, M.D., an assistant professor of orthopedic
surgery at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los
Angeles. "The scientific studies that would establish a cause-and-effect
relationship simply haven't been done."
But Jerome McAndrews, M.D., a chiropractic physician and
spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association, says backpacks may cause
disability later in life.
"Children are carrying far too much weight in their backpacks and they
are carrying them fashionably but improperly, slung over one shoulder," he
says. "The [musculo-skeletal] system has limited rejuvenation
possibilities. We're concerned that the damage that is inflicted now will be
showing up 30 years later in even more serious back injuries."