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Weighty Backpacks


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Weighty backpacks are pain in the neck for students 
Teens who use bags instead of lockers often suffer health consequences

by Tracy Grarcia


 Students in secondary schools around the country don't just have a load on their minds, the loads on their backs are growing heavier every year, possibly leading to health problems.

   Nurse Chris Stillwell believes the backpack problem is a significant one. Stillwell said heavy backpacks worsened posture and aggravated scoliosis during the crucial teenage growth period. Carrying an overloaded backpack now may even affect adult health.

   "The leading reason for missed work in adult employment is back pain," Stillwell said. "Having kids carry heavy backpacks may just be aggravating the problem later."

   Eighth graders at Selvidge Middle school in the Rockwood School District recently conducted a study on the weight of student backpacks. As reported on the Oct.20,1997 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the study found that the average backpack weight for girls was 10.2 pounds, and 9.25 pounds for boys. As a group, the smallest sixth grade girls carried the heaviest backpacks. Washington University physical therapist Suzy Cornbleet saw a great need for the study. Cornbleet said that about 30 percent of students had experienced standard adult lower back pain.

   "A backpack should weigh no more than 20 percent of a student's body weight," Cornbleet said.

   Stillwell conducted a survey of Ladue Horton Watkins students and their backpacks during the week of Nov.11. The results showed that the average backpack weight was about 22 pounds out of a sampling of 57 students. The backpacks, on average, weighed in at 16 percent of a student's body weight.

   In connection with the Selvidge study, the November1997 issue of the Rockwood Vision listed symptoms of backpack-induced pain from the Johns Hopkins Center in Baltimore, Maryland. According to the Vision, these symptoms included "Shoulder and low back pain, muscle and neck spasms, and tingling hands."

   Back problems connected with the bags still surface with relatively small loads. In October, Freshman Ben Washington learned the lesson the hard way. He was walking down the stairs with his 18-pound backpack when his back began to hurt.

   "When I woke up that morning I was fine," Washington said. "I was carrying the backpack when this pain just crept up on me. I finally went to the nurse and she iced it and wrapped my back."

Washington, a member of the JV basketball team, was concerned that the condition would interfere with his game.

   "I'm in a lot of pain right now, so I'm going to take a break from [basketball] practice," Washington said.

   Many students complain about the heavy textbooks they carry from class to class. Science department head Anthony Kardis believes the weight of the books can be managed since the textbooks can only be changed after five years of use.

   "There are very few chemistry books which I consider (to be complete). In say, Advanced Chemistry, the book has to logically follow the first year curriculum, which usually restrict me to two or three books. By then the mass or weight of the book doesn't enter into [the decision.] That policy may change later, but it will take a while before we can implement it," Kadis said.

   Kardis acknowledges that many students have problems with the weight of their books.

   "I know a lot of [students] who don't carry all their books to class, " Kadis said. "I think more use of lockers would be a better solution."

   The current policy at Ladue Junior High School is just that: students' backpacks are not allowed in the classroom. Assistant principal Judy Bachman believes the solution works well for the junior high students' needs.

   "The building is much smaller and all our teams are so close together. All the lockers are on close proximity to [each student's] team, so it's easy to pick up books between classes, "Bachman said.

   According to PR Newswire, Aug.29,1997, some high schools have eliminated lockers for security reasons, increasing the weight of backpacks. A trend in the $4 billion a year school supplies market is also leaning towards larger, heavier backpacks. In the article, pediatric orthopedist Dr. David Skaggs of the Children's Hospital Los Angeles suggested several measures to reduce the incidence of back pain. He said students should use both shoulder straps, and pack the heaviest, least sharp items closest to the back.

   "A load on the shoulders will naturally cause you to lean forward," Skaggs said. " That's why it's important to distribute the weight evenly. The standard two-strap backpack is good for light loads. For heavier loads, a backpack with a hip belt takes the load off the shoulders and distributes it to the pelvis and hips," Skaggs said.

   In an interview with KSDK Channel 5, Washington University physical therapist Nancy Woolsey also described the approach to the backpack.

   " Approach the backpack, bend at the hips and knees. Then pick it up, keeping the load close to you. Put it on both shoulders and make sure it fits nice and snugly," Woolsey said.

Stillwell said many students continued to abuse their backs.

   "I see students with back and knee injuries and they're still carrying heavy backpacks," Stillwell said.