School's In, Back's Out
Kids Risk Aches, Pains or Worse
with Overloaded Packs

This section is compiled by Frank M. Painter, D.C.
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Thomas Ropp

The Arizona Republic     08-14-2000 p. E1

Smart Living


It's become synonymous with back to school. Lugging around backpacks loaded with heavy textbooks has also become a medical concern among physicians, parents and students.

Roxanne Moreno of Mesa has been toting books on her back for five years. The Mountain View High School senior said lower-back pain comes and goes. Jillian Keenan, a freshman at North High School, likewise attributes lower-back pain to her backpack schlepping. The Phoenix student said the problem was commonplace at her former school, All Saints' Episcopal Day School in Phoenix.

"It got so bad almost everyone was using those carts on wheels," Keenan said. Neither Keenan nor Moreno has sought medical attention.

But medical experts say the stress that backpacks put on the body shouldn't be ignored. Students carrying more than 10 percent of their body weight are susceptible to lower-back and spinal pain, with female students more susceptible than males and younger students more prone to injury, according to a study by the University of South Australia. Furthermore, the study of 1,300 students ages 12 to 18 showed that because the high school years represent a period of extreme spinal growth, it is plausible that excessive weight consistently carried during the first three years of high school could have a detrimental impact on spinal development something that could last a lifetime.

Dr. Gregory White, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Phoenix Children's Hospital, said he sees many kids with curvature of the spine, or scoliosis. But he said it's difficult to determine whether backpacks are the culprit or whether they simply aggravate an existing condition. A more likely problem from backpacks, he said, is musculo-skeletal type pain, which develops when students try carrying heavy loads on one shoulder rather than distributing the weight evenly by wearing a strap across each shoulder.

Tami Hirasawa, a pediatric physical therapist, who owns Kid-Ability, a mobile pediatric office, said she has treated students with back pain that may have been aggravated by backpacks. Part of the recovery therapy involves strengthening abdominal muscles and making sure the spine is straight.

But even being physically fit isn't a guaranteed preventive. Gail Knight said her daughter, Saleemah, a junior at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, often experiences lower-back and shoulder pain from the weight of her backpack. "And she's extremely physically fit, because she's a dancer and works out all the time," said Knight, who keeps a heating pad at home to relieve the back pain. Saleemah, Knight said, has seen a doctor, who gave her medication for the back pain and told not to carry anything on her back for a while.

Younger students have also been victimized by the backpack. Gia Cobb of Phoenix recalls walking by Encanto Elementary School in Phoenix and seeing a small student with a big backpack who had fallen and couldn't get up. "He was like a turtle overturned on its back," said Cobb, who helped the student regain his bearings.

Susan Fuchs of Phoenix said she was "shocked" the first time she picked up the backpack of her son, Charley, who will attend Eagle Ridge Elementary School this year. "It was really heavy," Fuchs said. "He hasn't complained yet, but I wouldn't want to carry it around."

Among other things, the Australian study recommended that schools provide more lockers. But many districts are trying to get rid of lockers because of security concerns - the students who opened fire on fellow students at Columbine High School had cached weapons in their lockers - and a few districts around the country are installing clear lockers. "Smart Living" approached several school districts in an attempt to weigh students' backpacks but couldn't find any willing to participate.

Dick Foreman, board president of the Tempe Union School District, said his governing board understands that backpacks are a problem for a few students. "But lockers are a greater problem from a safety perspective," Foreman said. He said school districts aren't insensitive to heavy loads carried in backpacks. That's why many of them, including Tempe, issue two sets of textbooks, one for home and another for school, to minimize schlepping.

Foreman said he is not familiar with clear lockers but doesn't think they're a very good idea because it's still possible to hide things in them. He said the same is true of backpacks. "That's why I'd personally like to do away with them altogether and see students carry books the old-fashioned way," Foreman said. But Knight said that even with two sets of books, her daughter is still "overwhelmed" with material to carry. "I'd just like to see them come up with a better system and relieve kids of books," she said.


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