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When schoolwork becomes a pain

Heavy Backpacks

Safety Management graduate students Donna Jacques (left) and Sharon Neijfelt (center) weigh student backpacks outside the Wells Library at Indiana University Bloomington.

Print-Quality Photo

Heavy backpacks and bags have been known to cause pain and fatigue in children and adults. While these conditions should be a concern for parents and students alike, healthcare professionals increasingly are concerned about the role these bags play in the development of more serious conditions, such as chronic back pain and functional scoliosis, which is caused when the spine becomes twisted because one shoulder muscle is stronger than the other.

"A load of books or materials, distributed improperly or unevenly, day after day, is indeed going to cause stress to a growing spinal column and back," said Kevin Slates, an occupational and environmental health expert at Indiana University Bloomington. "The old adage, 'As the twig is bent, so grows the tree,' comes to mind. We are seeing a growing concern about the improper use of backpacks and the relatively scarce amount of preventive information available to young people."

The Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates that 4,928 emergency room visits each year result from injuries related to book bags and back carriers. "Students attending primary and secondary schools are more susceptible to these disorders because their bodies are developing faster," Slates said. "Females are even more susceptible because of the physiological demands on their bodies. But body mass and the weight of the back pack plays a role. If she weighs 120 pounds and is carrying a 25-pound backpack, it places a huge burden on her musculoskeletal system."

Slates, a clinical assistant professor in IUB's Department of Applied Health Science, offers these suggestions and considerations:

  • Pain and fatigue are, well, a pain. In Slates' preliminary study of the relationship between backpacks and health conditions, 55.3 percent of the college-age respondents reported experiencing pain from carrying their bags, with a higher percentage of women (64.9 percent), reporting such pain.
  • Parents, take note. Parents should be aware of the weight of their children's backpacks and encourage them to store some of their books and belongings in lockers.
  • Find a locker. University students should look into the use of temporary lockers on campus so they do not have to carry books for all of their classes all day. Universities should consider placing day lockers throughout campus to facilitate this.
  • Lighten the load. Healthcare professionals suggest keeping backpack weight below 15 percent to 20 percent of the carrier's body weight. Slates' research found that when women reported lower back pain wearing a shoulder strap bookbag, the average weight was 19.7 pounds. When they reported shoulder-back pain wearing the double-strap backpack, the average weight was 14.5 pounds. The average weight of backpacks carried by women who reported no pain was 8.5 pounds.
  • Strategic loading. Waists, Slates says, are designed to carry more weight than shoulders. Waist and chest straps help keep backpack weight as close to the body as possible, minimizing problems by distributing the weight more evenly across the body.
  • Options. Slates does not recommend one model over another, but he said parents and students should know they have options -- backpacks come in different shapes and sizes, including backpacks with one strap and messenger bags. He encourages people to use both straps on the packs that have two straps, however, because two straps cut the physiological burden in half by distributing weight more evenly. He also suggests moving the weight around to avoid overuse on particular muscles.
  • More pain. Fewer students used messenger bags in the study but a higher percentage, 71.4 percent, reported experiencing pain.

Last spring, Slates and members of the American Society of Safety Engineers began collecting data for the study by weighing backpacks and talking with students at bus stops on the IU Bloomington campus. Slates plans to expand his sample through next spring. In his preliminary findings, the students who reported experiencing pain reported having it in multiple areas, including the neck, shoulders and upper and lower back. Graduate students had the heaviest packs, weighing in at 12 pounds, 2 ounces on average. Male students' bags averaged 11 pounds, 10 ounces, with female students' bags averaging 10 pounds, 8 ounces. The heaviest bag recorded weighed 25 pounds, 6 ounces. The study examines the use of traditional double-strap backpacks and the newer one-strap bags and messenger bags. The study should shed some light on whether any of these styles result in less pain.