School-age children are carrying more weight in their backpacks than their developing bodies can handle, according to a study presented last week at the American Physical Therapy Association’s national conference in San Antonio.
In interviews with 345 Massachusetts students in grades 5-8 last spring, researchers from Simmons College in Boston found that more than half the youngsters regularly carried backpack loads that were heavier than 15 percent of their body weight. That is the limit recommended by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
The study found that roughly one-third of the students interviewed reported having a history of back pain. The average weight of a backpack in the Simmons study was 20 pounds. Preliminary results of the study were published in the winter edition of Pediatric Physical Therapy.
Multiple factors may cause back injuries, said Shelley Goodgold, an associate professor of physical therapy at Simmons College and the study’s lead researcher. “But we know that the minute you put on a backpack that is over that 15 percent limit,’' she added, "[students’] heads go forward, and it creates stress and increased forces on the neck and back.”
Further complicating that problem is the fact that many schoolchildren can’t tell when the loads they are lugging are too heavy, she said.
And the problem is likely to continue beyond 8th grade.
At the 1,350-student Avon Grove High School in West Grove, Pa., Patricia Benner, the school nurse, said she sees students complaining of back problems several times a week. “I think it often has to do with the weight [of the backpacks].”
Ms. Goodgold suggested certain steps to help prevent student back injuries. For example, she said, textbooks could be printed in paperback, instead of the much heavier hardcover versions. Schools might also consider providing two sets of books, one for students to keep at home and one for them to use at school, she said. She also suggested that administrators encourage students to use lockers instead of lugging their books around the school building all day.
Many students choose not to use lockers when available, Ms. Goodgold observed. In the study, she said, about “a third of the students who had lockers were still carrying books around with them all day.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Lugging Heavy Backpacks Hurts Children, Study Says