Dear Doctor: Our sons are ages 9, 11 and 14, and like all of the other schoolkids we know, they’re hauling around crazy-huge backpacks all day. What does that weight do to a child’s back? Can carrying a heavy backpack every day cause scoliosis?
Dear Reader: We hear from a lot of parents about the hefty load children carry around while they’re at school.
By the time kids stow all of the textbooks, notebooks, laptops, tablets, binders, snacks, water and miscellaneous school supplies they’ll need during a typical day, these packs can easily tip the scales at 10 pounds — and frequently much more. Considering that the current recommendation is that a child’s backpack shouldn’t exceed 10 percent of his or her body weight, the plain truth is that our kids are spending their weekdays yoked to considerably more weight than is good for them.
When it comes to scoliosis, a condition in which the spine grows with an abnormal sideways curve, there is no evidence that carrying a heavy backpack will cause it. But plenty of kids with overloaded backpacks do wind up paying a physical price. All of that weight forces them to hunch, slump, tilt or even stagger as they walk, which can stress, torque or compress the spine, neck and shoulders. This can result in aches, pain and muscle strain. Over the long term, the adjustments and contortions needed to repeatedly lift and lug around a hefty backpack during the school day can lead to nerve damage, which reveals itself in tingling, numbness or pins-and-needles sensations.
A study published in 2016 in the Spine Journal found that more than 60 percent of the 5,300 students surveyed suffered from backpack-related pain. And while much importance is placed on the weight of a pack, the study found that how long a pack is carried each day also had a bearing on pain and injury.
Left to their own devices, kids will often choose a backpack for its color, shape or design. That’s when we parents have to step in. Ergonomics aren’t nearly the draw that a cool logo or graphic can be, but they can save your child pain and injury. When shopping for a backpack:
• Select the proper size. Your child’s backpack should be no wider and no longer than his or her torso. Make sure the pack doesn’t reach more than just a few inches below the waist.
• Get a pack with wide, padded shoulder straps that are easily adjustable. A padded back panel adds to comfort, too.
• Just as with backpacks that are used in hiking and camping, chest and hip belts in school packs can help to equalize and stabilize the load.
• Instead of a pack with a single central pocket, look into those with multiple compartments. Not only can that help with organization, but it makes it easier to evenly distribute the weight.
• Help your kids evaluate his or her gear and work to lighten the daily load.
To catch potential problems as quickly as possible, let your kids know that when it comes to backpack-related aches or pains, you always want to know the details ASAP.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.