Study: School Backpacks Too Heavy

B O S T O N, Feb. 13, 2001 -- Jared Idels, 13, takes the bus to and from Wayland Middle School, so his heavy backpack doesn't usually bother him. But it became a problem recently when he had to walk his little brother home from elementary school.

"That day, he really complained about how heavy his backpack was," said his mother, Sue. "I don't think I'd want to walk a mile with that thing on."

Jared may not be alone in carrying a huge weight on his shoulders, according to a new study.

Simmons College professor Shelly Goodgold found that 55 percent of fifth- through eighth-grade students she surveyed carry backpack loads weighing more than 15 percent of their body weight. One-third of those students said they've suffered back pain.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children carry no more than 10 percent to 20 percent of their weight in a backpack.

The results of the new study are to be presented Saturday at a national conference of the American Physical Therapy Association in San Antonio. The study was based on a survey of 345 Massachusetts children.

Strains Back and Neck

"When you carry something that is really heavy, your head goes forward and you lean forward," said Goodgold, an associate professor of physical therapy. "This can produce strains in the neck, and strains in the back. Holding it over one shoulder can also create imbalances."

Previous studies have shown that wearing a backpack on one shoulder might increase the curvature of the spine in scoliosis patients, said Dr. Scott Bautch, president of the American Chiropractic Association's Council on Occupational Health.

Bautch said that other back problems have also been documented.

"There is a trend that kids are having back pain earlier," he said. "And it's not only caused by backpacks. They are sitting in front of computers, and doing other sedentary activities."

Additional studies of backpack pain are under way, including one at Northeastern University focusing on high schoolers. And the National Association of State Textbook Administrators is holding a "Summit on Textbook Size and Weight" at its annual meeting in March.

Goodgold decided to focus her study on growing children after discovering that previous backpack pain studies dealt only with adults, particularly postal workers and military personnel.

"On a personal basis, people are very interested in this," Goodgold said. "We all see it as a problem, but no one wants to do anything about it. Schools are increasing standards, they are raising the level of homework assignments, which means more books to take home."

The Wayland, Mass., public school system is one of many across the country that have begun to address the problem. School officials there have distributed extra copies of some textbooks to middle school students so they don't have to carry as many books between school and home.

Goodgold suggests that school districts that can't afford to buy more books could issue texts on CD-ROM or put them online so students don't have to take heavy books home.

Some parents are seeking to tackle the problem by buying their children better packs. Peter Nawrocki, owner of the six Relax the Back stores in the Boston area, says an increasing number of parents are bringing their children in to get more ergonomic backpacks.

But the back-friendly backpacks, which feature supportive shoulder and waist straps, aren't always popular with middle schoolers.

"I have two sons, one in the fifth grade and one in the eighth grade, and it's very difficult to get them to use these things," Nawrocki said. "They say it's not cool."