As a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and a father of three, I have ample opportunity to practice what I preach. For instance, I reassured my wife that our daughters would outgrow their pigeon toes. When my son split his forehead open, I talked her into letting me treat the wound at home with steri-strips. (I’m still paying for that one, by the way.)
But when my daughter started school, I was the one who needed reassurance when I picked up her backpack. It weighed at least 10 pounds. I couldn’t believe it!
My first thought was, “How in the world can a 5-year-old be expected to carry something so heavy?” My second thought was, “No wonder I see so many kids with back pain in my clinic if this is what they’re toting around all day.”
My wife reassured me that the load, which included school supplies, would be lightened by the second day. Nonetheless, I started to do a little research. It turns out that more than a few people who are smarter than I am have looked into the issue, applying scientific principles to determine whether backpacks cause back pain in students.
An article in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics in 2006 found that the incidence of back pain in adolescents age 11 to 14 has increased in the past decade and is approaching the number of incidents found in adults. Researchers also found that the weight of the pack directly correlated with the likelihood of pain, but they were unable to recommend an “acceptable” weight based on their information.
A study from the journal Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research in 2003 correlated pain with backpacks weighing more than 20 percent of a student’s body weight, prompting the American Academy of Orthopaedics to recommend a maximum backpack weight of 15 percent or less of the carrier’s body weight.
Other recommendations include using both shoulder straps and securing backpack contents so the weight doesn’t shift during use. A rolling pack is a good option if the child walks to school or doesn’t have a locker.
Despite these findings and recommendations, it’s still not clear that backpacks directly cause pain. There is also no evidence that backpacks have any role in the development of structural deformities such as scoliosis.
What we know is that children who carry a heavy backpack for a long period of time are more likely to complain of pain than those who do not. The best way to prevent pain is to keep the pack as light as possible, wear it appropriately – even if it doesn’t look cool – and stay fit and active.
If the most exercise students get is carrying a backpack every day, don’t be surprised if their backs hurt.
(Dr. David Cearley is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Georgia Health Sciences Children’s Medical Center.)