Thousands of students across this great land limp along the hallways and corridors of schools day in and day out, resembling human Leaning Towers of Pisa.
The culprit has innards, a weird array of leftover crumbs, uneaten candy, topped by the pungent odor of stale milk cartons. It is often filled with wads of paper, including important information indiscriminately piled into heaps.
What causes these conditions? The object I am referring to, innocent enough in and of itself, has haunted me for decades as I see student after student tempting lifelong injuries. The answer to all these questions is, of course, a too heavy, laden-down backpack.
The hardbound volumes students schlep around day in and out invite lifelong back problems. The weight they are forced to carry on their backs and the potential health problems are well known and have been documented by several state legislators, physical therapists, chiropractors and pediatricians.
Young people growing at a rapid rate can seriously injure themselves. The long-term results of this backpack conundrum, aside from lifelong back pain, include neck aches, bad posture, muscle spasms and increased scoliosis complications.
A recent study of the environmental factors associated with adolescent back pain associated it with carrying heavy loads, concluding it could lead to adult spinal pain, and every effort should be made to minimize environmental hazards to the adolescent spine.
Students are forced to carry their backpacks around all day because mega-schools demand it; there are often safety issues. School lockers are frequently buried in cavernous basements far from classrooms, and schools do not provide enough time to go back and forth between classes to exchange books.
Lockers are often broken into, and, therefore, they are not a safe place to keep expensive, hard-covered books. If a book is taken, it probably will be impossible to get another, affecting the student’s ability to complete their assignments.
Schools often are overcrowded, and students sometimes are forced to share lockers, which soon become so stuffed with garbage and wads of paper that fall onto the floor each time the door is opened there is never enough room for the books that they were meant to hold.
This situation leads to the coat-on-top-of-the-locker syndrome, which is prevalent in elementary schools, much to the chagrin of teachers who tempt their own back problems by constantly having to bend down and pick up coats.
More seriously, concern about drugs and guns possibly hidden in student lockers have led many schools to remove lockers, forcing children to lug their textbooks around all day. Lockers, once prevalent in public schools, fell into disfavor with school officials who sought to cut costs and improve school safety. Consequently, many schools don’t have lockers, and students must cart around their books all day. It is sad that security issues have become so tight student’s pay the price for safety with courting back pain.
The potential problems caused by carrying overloaded backpacks, although described with some brevity here, must be taken seriously and alternatives sought by school districts and book publishers.
Medical professionals recommend individuals carry no more than 15 percent of their body weight on their backs. Many students carry as much as 55 percent of their body weight on their back.
The American Physical Therapy Association recommends a child should carry no more than 15 to 20 percent of their body weight and should be sure to wear both straps of the backpack. Slinging a strap over one shoulder causes the child to lean against the uneven weight, curving the spine. Wider shoulder straps also are better at distributing the load evenly and can help prevent nerve compression.
Backpack-related injuries send about 5,000 students a year to emergency rooms, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Personally, I have seen students try to sit down after taking off their backpack who literally have to crawl into the chair.
Dr. William Greaves, former president of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, has lamented there are no national standards regarding children’s backpacks. He has suggested backpacks with a rigid frame and a strap around the waist would take some pressure off the children’s shoulders.
However prudent his suggestion, children are conformists, and most would never be caught dead with an unconventional backpack. Witness the backpacks on wheels that showed up at schools several years ago. The brave little ones that trudged them along were often made fun of as nerds or weirdos. Sadly, this type of backpack was awkward on stairs and often got in the way of the marauding students who traipse up and down stairs, leaving the student with the backpack on wheels open to additional injury.
Unless action is taken by individual parents and concerned organizations, little is apt to change the weight students must negotiate through the hallways of American schools. For a nation that gives lip service to healthy lifestyles, this is a shame. I hope the readers of this article will stand up and help develop alternatives so fewer children will continue to invite serious injury.
First published in Princeton Packet Publications. EJ entry prepared by Lorin Arnold.
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