The backpack burden: The concern for students’ spines

Posted Sept. 01, 2014, at 5:27 a.m.
George Danby | BDN

Ever pick up your child’s school backpack and wonder if it’s filled with bricks? If so, you’re not alone. Those ridiculously heavy burdens have plagued students — and concerned parents — for many years, according to local chiropractors.

Not only are overstuffed backpacks unwieldy and vexing, they can cause students chronic pain and injuries.

“We’re always trying to counsel parents about finding a way to minimize the weight of the bags,” Daniel Myerowitz, a chiropractor at Myerowitz Chiropractic and Acupuncture Clinic in Holden, said. “Whether it’s by the student taking extra trips to the locker between classes, taking really good notes or, in the rare cases, photocopying chapters of their textbook.”

Students throughout Maine more often are using lightweight technology such as laptops and tablets in classes, but in most schools, hefty textbooks, notebooks and binders are still in use. Then, add in the gym clothes and lunch boxes, artwork and science projects, sports uniforms and calculators, protractors and pencils. Pretty soon, the backpack is fit to burst, the zipper won’t zip and the straps are threatening to break off altogether.

This isn’t just a problem in the United States. In fact, the American Chiropractic Association often refers to a 2004 study conducted in Italy, which found the average child carries a backpack that would be equivalent to a 39-pound burden for a 176-pound man or a 29-pound load for a 132-pound woman. Of these children carrying heavy backpacks to school, 60 percent experience back pain a result.

To help with this issue, the American Chiropractic Association compiled the following tips for choosing and wearing a school backpack:

— A student’s backpack should weigh no more than 5-10 percent of his or her body weight. A heavier backpack will cause a person to bend forward in an attempt to support the weight with the back rather than the shoulders.

— The backpack should never hang more than 4 inches below the waistline. A backpack that hangs too low increases the weight on the shoulders, causing the carrier to lean forward while walking.

— A backpack with individualized compartments helps distribute the contents more evenly. Make sure pointy or bulky objects are packed away from the area that will rest on the student’s back.

— Wearing both shoulder straps is best. Using just one strap can lead to muscle spasms and lower back pain.

— Shoulder straps should be wide, padded and adjustable so the backpack is comfortable and can be fitted to the student’s body. Padded straps are important. Straps that are too loose can cause the backpack to hang uncomfortably and cause spinal misalignment and pain.

— Ask your child or teen only to carry materials he or she needs. If the backpack is still too heavy, ask teachers if your child could leave the heaviest books at school and bring home only lighter hand-out materials or workbooks.

— The use of rollerpacks, or backpacks on wheels, has become popular in recent years, but the ACA is recommending they only be used by students who are not physically able to carry a backpack. Several school districts have banned the use of rollerpacks because they clutter hallways, resulting in dangerous trips and falls.

“The bottom line is there’s a lot of issues that could be taken care of just by eliminating the weight,” Adam Osenga, chiropractor of Northeast Chiropractic Center in Bangor, said.

Nowadays, the frequent use of cellphones, tablets and laptops also contributes to bad posture and back pain, Myerowitz said, and that’s not just a problem for students. Typically, when person looks at a mobile device, he has his shoulders rolled forward and head down, which puts strain on his neck and back.

“We see a lot of issues, especially with necks these days, when kids are getting cellphones and tablets at an early age,” Myerowitz said.

Osenga suggests students visit a chiropractor monthly throughout the school year for realignment of their spine, even if they aren’t experiencing back or neck pain. Preventative care may help avoid future problems.

When most people think of chiropractic healthcare, they think of “spinal manipulation” — also known as “chiropractic adjustment” — which is the most common therapeutic procedure performed by chiropractors. But chiropractors have broad diagnostic skills and also are trained to recommend therapeutic and rehabilitative exercises, as well as provide nutritional, dietary and lifestyle counseling. In addition to healing back and neck pain, they treat pain in other joints, and many treat a wide range of disorders and illnesses, from ear infections to Lyme disease.

“It’s all about education,” Osenga said, pointing out that high school health classes should include the importance of good posture and proper backpack use.

In the past several decades, society has shown a greater interest in the benefits of chiropractic medicine, Osenga said. When he began his practice in 1988, there were 40 chiropractors in the state, he said. Today, there are more than 250 chiropractors in Maine.

Whether or not you ascribe to chiropractic medicine, the ACA’s advice when it comes to backpack use is echoed by the National Safety Council and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. All agree heavy backpacks can cause serious back and neck problems for children and teens. So lighten the load, distribute the weight evenly and make comfort a priority.

 

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