This story was named a National Winner in the Feature category of the 2007 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Quill and Scroll International Writing & Photo Contest.

The Hazards of Carrying a Backpack

Note: This story was named a National Winner in the Feature category of the 2007 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Quill and Scroll International Writing & Photo Contest.

Published December 22, 2006

by Megan Spanjers

Her parents had warned her that it would happen, but she didn’t listen to them. She didn’t believe that it could happen to her, but then it did.

It hurt to walk up and down the stairs, her lower back was stiff and wouldn’t move and the gradual pains became sharp during the worst times.

This was the physical state of sophomore Diane Carlson for three or four days, until she decided to visit the doctor. She was soon shocked to find out, on August 31, that she had been experiencing lumbar strain, or the stretching of the muscles in the lower back from overusing and misusing her backpack.

“I just really couldn’t move much anymore,” said sophomore Diane Carlson. “It just hurt too much to twist and turn and bend.”

Research shows that heavy backpacks, especially when carried improperly, are having an increasingly harmful effect on the health of high school students. Besides causing back, neck and shoulder problems during high school, carrying a heavy backpack can also lead to severe health problems in the future.

In order to prevent injuries, students should make sure that their backpacks weigh no more than 10 percent of their body weight, according to the American Chiropractic Association. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends that backpacks should not weigh more than 15 to 20 percent of a student’s body weight. Both agree that more than the recommended amount of weight can result in injuries.

A survey conducted by the Talon in mid-November showed that fifty percent of Minnehaha students carry a backpack that is more than 10 percent of their body weight, with the heaviest backpack carried by junior Alex Moe, who was carrying 30 pounds on his back.

Students who carry a backpack that is too heavy may experience physical pain, including discomfort, strains and spasms, according to doctors.

Strains result when the muscles are stretched and become inflamed and spasms are more severe, occuring when the muscles contract. But the problems don’t necessarily end once the student is through with their years of carrying a backpack. More severe problems may occur in the future for many students.

“They should really have an evaluation because what happens if these problems go unchecked is that they could become more chronic and permanent,” said John Hynan, a chiropractor at Hynan Chiropractic Clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The development of poor posture is one of the biggest problems resulting from heavy and improperly worn backpacks, according to Jeff Oseid, a pediatrician at Southdale Pediatrics in Burnsville, Minnesota.

“These kind of muscle problems can cause chronic muscle spasms and poor posture, which can lead to further back problems, like disc injuries,” said Oseid.

Although uncommon, scapular winging is another long-term effect of heavy and improperly worn backpacks. “That’s where you get actual nerve damage to the muscles of the back, which would cause your shoulder to kind of swing outward so that you can’t stabilize your shoulder,” said Oseid.

According to orthopedic nurse Margaret Rateau, rucksack palsy is another condition that may result from the improper use of backpacks.

“Rucksack palsy may lead to numbness and tingling of the upper extremities, diminished muscle strength or temporary loss of movement in the affected arm or shoulder,” Rateau wrote in an article titled “The Use of Backpacks in Children and Adolescents,” which was published in the March and April 2004 issue of Orthopaedic Nursing.

Although some doctors disagee, many chiropractors and pediatricians believe that overused and improperly worn backpacks can lead to functional scoliosis, a condition in which a structurally normal spine appears to have a lateral curve.

“Scolisosis is something that is talked about a lot of times when it talks about spinal development,” said Christopher Lilja, a chiropractor at Lifestyle Chiropractic in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. “That can be a congenital thing, but it also can develop from different stresses that children experience while growing up, whether that be backpacks or riding bikes.”

Doctors believe that this generation has suffered the most from the growing issue of heavy backpacks the compared to previous generations.

“This is such a hot topic right now because the backpacks are getting heavier and the textbooks are getting bigger, and for some reason, the kids are expected to be carrying those backpacks between home and school,” said Oseid.

Other doctors agree with Oseid.

“I believe that overloaded backpacks are doing damage to children each and every day of the school year,” said Marvin Arnsdorff, doctor and co-creator of Backpack Safety America, in an article on the Backpack Safety America website. “And the research studies back it up!”

He’s right. According to the Backpack Safety America website, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission reported a 330 percent rise of emergency room visits related to backpack injuries between 1996 and 2003. The website also mentioned that there are an estimated 6,512 emergency room visits each year resulting from injuries related to book bags.

Minnehaha Academy alumni can also prove the growing issue of backpacks.

“We never really had backpacks,” said theater and film teacher Alicia Corts, who graduated from Minnehaha in 1991. “We just would always shove everything in our lockers, and then we would just go back and forth.”

It seems that the issue started to rise after 1999.

“When I was in school, we did use our lockers a lot,” said fitness teacher Julie Doran, who graduated from Minnehaha in 1999. “Not many students hauled backpacks around to classes.”

Current students at Minnehaha admit that they do not use their lockers as much as they could for various reasons. Sophomore Meghan Nicoski said that the school should “make lockers more convenient for us and have it so they are bigger so we can actually fit stuff in it.” Other students preferred not to stop at their locker for different reasons. “I’m just kind of lazy, and I never take it out to put it in my locker,” said senior Amanda Sicoli.

Many students refrain from going to their locker between every class because they believe that they do not have enough time to visit their locker without being late for class. However, a timing conducted by the Talon showed that it takes approximately 5 minutes to travel from the classrooms on the third floor in the “B” section to the sophomore lockers by the music rooms and back. This gives students an extra three minutes to socialize with friends, go to the bathroom and get a drink of water.

Choosing not to lighten your backpack between classes is a severe issue, as around 60 percent of youth go through at least one lower-back pain episode by the end of their teenage years, according to Backpack Safety America. That means that about 330 of the 556 Minnehaha high school students will experience lower back pain at least once before they turn 20 years old.

Some of them have already had this experience.

“It’s certainly hurting my back,” said Moe, who often carries a 30-pound backpack. “Something should be done.”

For some, it has been an ongoing problem.

“Since seventh grade, I’ve been having back problems because of carrying too much stuff, so I’m probably just going to die of back stuff,” said freshmen Rowen Kellogg with a laugh.

Following the safety guidelines for wearing backpacks can help minimize the potential suffering from backpack- related injuries. In order to do so, high school students should wear backpacks with wide, padded shoulder straps and always use both of the shoulder straps, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Students are also advised to tighten their backpacks straps so that the backpack does not fall below the waist.

“I don’t have my backpack so far down on my back,” said Carlson. “Yeah, it might look nerdy or weird to have it up on my back, but it helps, and I don’t want to have to go through this again.”

Other ways to avoid the injuries include the following: using a waist strap, using a lightweight backpack, using a rolling backpack, packing light, stopping often at school lockers, bending using both knees to pick the backpack up and learning back-strengthening exercises, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Following these guidelines and avoiding the improper use of backpacks will help reduce the risk of injuries to the neck, shoulder, and back, according to doctors.

Carlson’s experience has changed how she uses her backpack. She has tightened the straps of her backpack and learned her schedule, eliminating the carrying of extra books.

“I saw what happened when I carry too much in my backpack,” said Carlson. “I’m hoping it will be better [and] I won’t see the effects of this later in life. I just don’t want it to happen again.”

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