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Parents Ignore Heft and Contents of Kids' Backpacks

Study: They weigh students down, and grownups are unaware

THURSDAY, Dec. 19, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you know of a child who appears to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, you may need to look no further than her backpack to help relieve some of the burden.

Many youngsters carry a surprisingly hefty physical load on those tiny backs and shoulders, researchers say. And not only do very few parents actually know the weight of their child's backpack, but few ever look at the contents, Texas researchers report in a new study.

"Parents, look in your kid's backpacks. I think you'll be surprised," says Dr. Bryan Lane, a family physician at Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Tex., and one of the authors of the report, which appears in the January issue of Archives of Disease in Childhood.

The authors surveyed 745 students in elementary schools in Texas, from kindergarten through grade five, whose backpacks weighed 10 percent or more of their body weight. The children reported that only 4 percent of their parents had ever weighed their backpack, and 34 percent of parents had never checked their child's backpack's contents.

Those whose parents had never surveyed the contents carried significantly heavier burdens and more textbooks than those whose parents did check the contents. The most common item carried was a reading book, but students also carried textbooks, folders, extra clothing, lunch boxes, and electrical devices.

Although many physicians and parents will anecdotally report that children are hurt by the heavy weight they force onto their shoulders or backs, there are relatively few studies in this area, Lane admits. In another study as yet unpublished, Lane and others report that children carrying 10 percent or more of their weight in a backpack frequently complain of shoulder, back, neck, and other musculoskeletal discomfort.

Long-term studies are needed to discern whether problems later in life can be traced to consistently carrying heavy loads to school in younger years, and Lane hopes this study will prompt that research, he says.

Dr. Arya Shamie, an assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of California in Los Angeles, says the study "puts some attention to a potentially damaging activity we do as kids."

He says that if he sees a man at 40 with worn-out discs, he doesn't know if the damage results from having carried a heavy backpack for too long or incorrectly, but he thinks that "could be" the cause.

Lane says that many kids today carry more items than when their parents attended school, and may even be carrying band instruments and gym clothes to boot. He says that a child will start to feel sore if she is carrying more than one-tenth of her own weight. "That seems to be the line that triggered the discomfort."

Dr. Leonard Pollack, head of pediatrics at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, has never thought to weigh his own children's backpacks, but thinks it's a good idea. He also thinks parents should talk to their child's teacher or school and find out why children are carrying so much.

"Some of the lockers are very small," Pollack suggests. Or maybe "the child is afraid something will be stolen." He says schools need to look at where lockers are placed and whether heavy textbooks need to be brought home and back to school regularly.

Pollack was surprised to find so few parents go through their child's backpack. "I think parents need to be cognizant of what is coming home in the backpack. Parents ought to be keeping track of what the kid brings home from school, whether it's a weight issue or not," he says.

Aside from suggesting that parents look in their child's backpack and remove unnecessary items, Lane's group has developed an acronym to help students remember some rules about carrying a backpack properly. It's called SKILLS, and it goes thusly:

  • S stands for Selecting the right backpack that is full-sized with adequate back padding and wide straps;
  • K is to Know the limit of the weight that should be carried, and that the recommendation is that it be less than 10 to 15 percent of the child's weight;
  • I is to Inspect what is inside the bag and make sure only necessary items are there and packed properly;
  • L represents Lifting the backpack correctly by bending knees and facing the backpack when lifting it;
  • L is so students will Learn to adjust the straps on the back and check that the backpack rests on the back, as it should, and not below the waist;
  • And S is a reminder to Search for updates about safe backpack carrying from a family doctor or on the Internet.

What To Do

Visit KidsHealth or the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons to learn more about carrying the load safely.

SOURCES: Bryan Lane, M.D., family physician, Department of Family Medicine, Scott and White Memorial Hospital, Temple, Tex.; Arya Shamie, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery, University of California, Los Angeles; Leonard Pollack, M.D., division head of pediatrics, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit; January 2003 Archives of Disease in Childhood
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