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April 11, 2021  
BACK NEWS: Feature Story

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  • Back to School Without Back Pain

    Back to School Without Back Pain


    September 08, 2005

    By: Jean Johnson for Back1

    Articles debating heavy back packs and the spinal health of today’s youth have gotten to be as much of an annual ritual as the commercials that sell the book bags. Indeed, in our safety-conscious culture it seems we want definitive answers – some reassurance that we are doing the right thing.
    Take Action
    Lower your back pain risk:

    Lighten the load

    Wear both shoulder straps if your pack is heavy

    Put on and take off your backpack carefully

    Make sure the pack rests evenly in the middle of your back

    Adjust the straps so they don’t dig into your arms or shoulders

    Consider using the hip belt to transfer some of the weight from your back and shoulders to your hips


    When it comes to backpacks, though, the jury’s pretty much still out.

    One of the latest to enter the discussion is the director of the transitional doctor of physical therapy degree at Northeastern University, Mary Ann Wilmarth, P.T., D.P.T., M.S., O.C.S. Although the string of letters after her name is reminiscent of alphabet soup, Wilmarth makes some salient points when it comes to the back pack.

    “Back pain is already the most common ailment among working American adults. If we don’t correct the backpack issues that are causing children back pain, the issue will become magnified in years to come,” said Wilmarth. “Wearing backpacks improperly or ones that are too heavy put children at increased risk for spinal injury.”

    Sounds reasonable. But then there’s the 2003 University of Michigan study that finds no relationship at all between carrying a backpack and back pain.

    “There is no good scientific evidence to support the claim that schoolbag load is a contributing factor to the development of low back pain in growing children,” medical director of the U-M Spine Program and associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and of surgery at the U-M Medical School, Andrew Haig, M.D. said.

    Haig completed a study that looked at 184 elementary and middle school children ages 7 to 15 in the Ann Arbor, Michigan public school district. Although more than a third of the group said they had an indicator of back pain (like pain in their neck or middle or lower back) Haig found they did not carry heavier backpacks than the children who experienced no symptoms. More, the study concluded there was no relationship between back pain that how kids wear their backpacks.

    “You can be cool again with your backpack over one shoulder,” Haig said.
    Be Aware
    Watch for these backpack problem signs:

    Posture change with pack on

    Pain while carrying your backpack

    Tingling or numbness in your arms

    Red marks on your shoulders


    The researcher goes on to explain that because most students don’t wear their backpacks for extended periods of time, the spine is able to handle the load. “The length of time a backpack is worn likely has an impact on whether a person develops pain,” Haig said.

    Despite Haig’s study results, his team was surprised that 15 percent of younger children reported back pain while 45 percent of middle school students said they had problems. But rather than blame the backpack, Haig suggests examining lifestyle choices.

    “The students’ body mass index, an indicator of obesity, increased from the third graders to the middle schoolers, so the middle schoolers were more fat. Also the percent of student who walked or biked to school dropped dramatically in the older kids, so they’re much less active. At the same time they reported watching much more TV and spending more time playing video games,” Haig said. ”Frankly, I think that might be more of a factor in back pain that the backpacks.”

    Haig explains that exercise that pumps oxygen and nutrition around the body and into things like the discs that cushion the vertebra is a factor in maintaining good spinal health. At the same time he appreciates how people would think backpacks the cause of problems.

    “We acknowledge that intuitive sense of parents, clinicians, and teacher that as children carry more in their backpacks, they have more back pain,” he said. “But the increases in pain seem to be related to aging and inactivity. Possibly for children who have back pain, wearing a backpack can make that ongoing pain more uncomfortable. But there is no evidence that backpacks cause anything more than temporary discomfort.”

    It’s tough when the experts disagree. But we at Body1 hope it helps to have both sides of the debate presented. Also, if you find yourself staunchly in either the Wilmarth or the Haig camp and care to pitch into our community discussion, we welcome your experience and remarks.


    Last updated: 08-Sep-05

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