Reducing the impact of heavy backpacks on students |

Reducing the impact of heavy backpacks on students

Students at Margaret G. Scotten Elementary School tote their backpacks Monday morning.
By Jennifer Terman/ |

The weight of a heavy load some students bear is not only manifested in school work and tests but in the pack around the students’ shoulders.

Improper backpack use can cause injury and pain, according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

A study led by APTA member and physical therapist Shelly Goodgold, who is also an associate professor of physical therapy at Simmons College in Boston, found 55 percent of children surveyed carried backpack loads heavier than the recommended 15 percent of their own body weight. The study also found one-third of children reported back pain that caused them to visit a doctor, miss school or abstain from physical activities.

Dr. John Reeder from Sierra Care Physicians in Grass Valley said heavy backpacks can produce back pain and tweaks but do not lead to structural problems like scoliosis. Reeder said he has seen children come through his office citing back pain, which he said can be alleviated using simple techniques.

“Decreasing the load in the backpack and having a properly fitted backpack can have a large impact, in addition to consciousness of having good posture and exercise.”
Margaret Yen-Chuang Matthews,
physical therapist

“Sometimes it’s just simply lowering the weight or making sure they put both straps on and being a little bit more careful,” Reeder said.

Many schools in Nevada County are introducing advanced and lighter technology into their classrooms, including iPads and tablets, which can reduce the need for heavy textbooks.

Lyman Gilmore Middle School fifth- through eighth-graders have access to iPads, which they will be able to use at home and school which reduces some of the textbook load, said Grass Valley School District Superintendent Eric Fredrickson.

The school is in the process of implementing digital homework assignments, in which a student watches teacher instruction by video online and completes homework and assessment assignments in the classroom.

“That’s revolutionizing the whole concept of taking a book home and doing homework,” Fredrickson said. “We’re hoping to eliminate the need for kids to carry heavy books. We can’t control what kids do at home, but as far as textbooks, we can take care of that extra weight.”

Ann McCormick’s sixth-grade daughter attends Seven Hills Intermediate School in Nevada City and carried about half her weight in books and materials last year — in addition to a flute for music class.

Her daughter has not received books yet this year but last year typically carried a 30-pound backpack on her 60-pound frame. McCormick advised her daughter to pull a wheeled backpack, like a suitcase, but her daughter refused because it is “uncool.”

“I told my daughter, ‘You should pull your backpack because I don’t like you carrying this’ and that I would buy her a backpack she’d be able to pull, but she declined because it’s not cool,” McCormick said, adding that she noticed high school students ditch their backpacks and carry their books for a similar reason. “This backpack thing is definitely a middle-school happening, and since our middle school is fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade, the kids are certainly much younger, 9 or 10 (years old).”

The American Academy of Pediatrics offered tips for preventing heavy backpack problems in the form of a news release modified by physical therapist Margaret Yen-Chuang Matthews of ALIVE Physical Therapy in Nevada City.

Students should wear both straps to allow better distribution of weight and promote symmetrical posture and straps should be padded and contoured to help reduce pressure on chest and shoulders, the release stated. Another tip is to make sure the backpack fits properly and that shoulder straps fit comfortably on the shoulder and under the arms, so the arms can move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest in the contour of the lower back, sit evenly in the middle of the back and not sag. The heaviest items should be positioned close to the back, and only the necessary load for the day should be carried.

According to Matthews, the ideal backpack should be padded to reduce pressure on the back and prevent the pack’s contents from digging into the child. It should also have a waist belt to help distribute some of the load to the pelvis, with compression straps on the sides or bottom of the backpack that when tightened, compress the contents of the backpack and stabilize the articles. The backpack should also feature reflective material, so that the child is visible to drivers at night.

Signs of a too-heavy backpack include pain when wearing the backpack, tingling or arm numbness and red marks on the shoulders. Heavy backpack use also negatively affects adults, particularly those with bone density issues, Matthews said.

The bones in a person with osteoporosis are spongy rather than hard and firm, Matthews said, and having too much weight on the back presses downward, which makes the body compensate by leaning forward, which contributes to compression fractures.

“Compression fractures can occur even if there’s no weight on the back with a forward curve,” she said. “If you add the weight of an extra backpack, it can cause even more damage.”

Matthews acknowledged most back problems result from forces beyond backpack use, but any reduction in strain is a positive.

“Kids and adults have so many things pulling their spine forward today, whether sitting in the car, at the computer, playing video games, just sitting on the couch,” she said. “There are lots of forces doing bad things to their spine, so if we can take one load off, it will improve spinal development in the long run.

“Decreasing the load in the backpack and having a properly fitted backpack can have a large impact, in addition to consciousness of having good posture and exercise.”

To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email or call 530-477-4230.

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