Backpacks and Back Pain: Are your Children at Risk?

A study by the US Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission calculated that carrying a 12-pound backpack to and from school and lifting it 10 times a day for an entire school year puts a cumulative load on youngsters’ bodies of 21,600 pounds — the equivalent of six mid-sized cars!

Even if children complain about the weight of the bag and pain with carrying it, most of us believe kids are resilient, the pain is short term and kids will bounce back. Well, new research now says otherwise.

In a 2012 study out of Spain, at the Hospital de costa in Burelia, researchers surveyed 1400 students between the ages of 12-17 in regards to the type of bag they carry, weight, demographics, back pain associated with using a heavy backpack, etc. What they found was that 25% of students had reported low back pain ongoing for more than 15 days in the past school year (this is similar to rates of 15-20% noted in adults).

The majority of students carried packs whose weight exceeded 10% of their body weight. The average weight of the backpack in these students was found to be 15 pounds. This increased weight has been attributed to the fact that the typical weight of a textbook in 1970 was 2 pounds; currently, it is 5 pounds. Additionally, adolescents with the heaviest backpacks were 50% more likely to have pain lasting greater than 15 days.
The results of this research mirror a 2004 study from the University of California Riverside, in which 3500 students were surveyed. 64% of students in that study reported low back pain symptoms, with 20% noting pain lasting greater than six months. Some of the key facts and risk factors that can be pulled from both of these studies include:

  • No association with type of bag used and severity of pain
  • No clear “safe weight”; only that with increased weight, increased risk of pain
  • Walking to and from school carrying pack associated with increased risk of pain

One then begs to ask the question: How can we start to address this and help protect our kids from developing pain? A concern researchers frequently cited is that many schools have removed lockers because of vandalism and concerns about safety, so students carry a whole day’s worth of books and supplies at all times. While this is likely to be less of a problem in China, it is a still an area of concern. Other ways to address backpack weight include:

  • Use spiral notebooks instead of binders, which are heavier and bulkier
  • Have 2 sets of textbooks (for school and home) to reduce carrying load
  • Have your children spend a few minutes at the end of the day determining exactly what they need to bring home, instead of carrying everything
  • Use a rolling backpack, or select a pack that is only as large as necessary (with bigger bags, kids are more likely to carry unnecessary things) with good support straps
  • Avoid paper books with the advent of digital textbook

While there is no research that evaluates the long term effects of back pain in adolescents using heavy backpacks, we are starting to see incidence rates of low back pain in students that rivals that in adults. The real concern is regarding early assessment and treatment: if steps are not taken early to address these symptoms, pain can become chronic and more difficult to treat. The notion that most childhood injuries heal on their own is a false one.  These injuries should be addressed just as an adult injury would be.

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