Those heavy backpacks: Oh, my aching courseload!

Those heavy backpacks: Oh, my aching courseload!
It's a familiar sight in schools around the country: students schlepping around, bent over, straining under backpacks stuffed to the gills with textbooks, notebooks, class supplies, lunches and more. While the youngsters may consider heavy packs a pain in the neck, many doctors are starting to see them as more than just a school nuisance.
Last year the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) weighed in on the portly pack phenomenon. In the summer of 1999, the group surveyed more than 100 physicians at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., in an effort to determine whether heavy backpacks constitute a health risk for kids. And the majority of responses indicate that students who routinely tote mammoth packs could be cruising for a visit to the doctor's office.
Some 58 percent of orthopaedists included in the survey reported they are seeing patients complaining of back and shoulder pain brought on by heavy backpacks, and seven out of 10 said backpacks are becoming a clinical problem for children. "Orthopaedic surgeons are starting to notice an increase in children visiting their offices with muscle fatigue problems that we usually did not see until later in their adult years," observed Dr. Charlotte B. Alexander, an orthopaedic surgeon in Houston, Texas. "If you have a 90-pound female carrying a 20-pound backpack, then the backpack weight becomes a medical issue."
It's a problem familiar to Sylvia Barial, a school nurse in the New Orleans public schools. "Some of these packs are so stuffed, they stick out almost two feet" behind the student, says Barial, who is also co-chair of the school nurse subcommittee for the AFT's health care division. "When kids are small and carrying a lot of books, it can create problems. They come in complaining of lower back pain." In upper grades, you see students who hurt themselves when they pick up backpacks in a twisting motion, she adds.
The AAOS survey asked doctors what backpack recommendations they made to children and parents. The most frequently cited tips were:
Use a hip strap for heavier weights.
Use a pack with padded wide straps and a padded back.
Use the pack properly--wear both of the straps, firmly tightened, to hold the pack two inches above the waist.
Engage in exercises, suggested by a physician, to condition back muscles.
Use correct lifting techniques.
Place the heaviest items close to the student's back.
Try to make frequent trips to lockers between classes to replace books.
Consider purchasing a backpack with wheels.
Purchase a second set of books for home.
Survey respondents also suggest a formula for determining a maximum weight for backpacks: No more than 20 percent of body weight, and even lighter for small children. But, in an age of bloated, five-pound textbooks, that formula may be hard to adhere to, Barial observes. She has seen some students fare well with rolling backpacks (although they have sometimes posed a tripping risk in the hallways). But many families may find it difficult to foot the extra $40-$60 that rolling backpacks often cost. And then there is always the danger that students may shun rolling packs as "less than cool."
Certainly the best solution, Barial believes, would be a second set of books for home. But she isn't holding her breath for that fix--not at a time when many students feel fortunate just to get a single set of books from their school districts.
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(From American Teacher, Feb. 2000)