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Pain in the Backpack

How heavy backpacks are weighing down today's kids.
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Long-Term Outlook Unclear continued...

"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."

Solutions and Guidelines

According to guidelines from the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), students should carry no more than 10% of their body weight in a backpack. (See table: "How Much Is Too Much?") The backpacks should have two adjustable and padded shoulder straps to equalize the weight and prevent shoulder, neck, and back problems. Belts around the waist can also help distribute the weight properly. Although backpacks slung casually over one shoulder may be fashionable, this posture puts further stress on the back and spinal cord.

Concerned about students carrying 20, 30, even 50 pounds in backpacks, school systems across the United States -- in New Hampshire, Michigan, Florida, and Nevada, to name just a few states -- have considered limiting the use of backpacks in school.

Minnehaha Academy, a private school in Minneapolis, banned backpacks in its middle school in 1998 with surprisingly little reaction despite their popularity among students.

"There was less resistance than I thought there would be," Dean Erickson, the middle-school principal, says. "Kids of that age have a herd mentality. When none of them could carry a backpack, it became a non-issue."

And although some students may consider them dorky at first, another solution is to switch to backpacks on wheels. Karen Jacobs, Ed.D., Professor of Occupational Therapy at Boston University and AOTA president, says that after discovering her two teenagers were carrying backpacks weighing 20 and 40 pounds apiece, she persuaded them to give wheels a try.

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