Back-to-school time brings a host of new experiences, challenges and tests. Unfortunately, for this generation of students, back strength is also being tested in between each period.
Like exponentially strong ants, it’s not uncommon to see elementary pupils carrying backpacks that are almost as heavy as the kids themselves.
Is this the price of learning?
Or unnecessary danger to students’ growing muscular and skeletal systems?
It’s the prolonged misuse of bags that can lead to spinal problems in the future, said Dr. Dana Miller of Centre One Chiropractic on Scalp Avenue in Richland Township.
“Especially with kids, because their bodies are still developing. You can start to cause some scoliotic changes,” he said, explaining a scoliotic shift in the spine as a listing to the left or right, depending on the side the student favors.
“A lot of times, that shifting can happen not because of trauma or injury but because of imbalance in the muscles from posture,” he said.
“They’re subtle changes.”
Physicians call it “microtrauma” – a daily wear and tear that can grow into more serious issues if left unchecked. This can include joint discomfort and arthritic changes similar to what the elderly experience, but brought on sooner by the students’ daily haul.
The daily (shoulder) grind
“A lot of what gets people in my office is just the daily grind on their bodies,” he said.
Forget what you learned in etiquette school; constant, proper posture is difficult enough without the 40 pounds of books hanging from your back.
Miller explained that when your balance is shifted, your brain will actually work against you, making matters worse.
“Your body’s going to change. Your eyes naturally want to stay level with the horizon, so your head starts to lean to level your eyes out,” he said.
With homework loads and the number of books students must take home increasing, Dr. Matthew Masiello of Windber Research Institute said he wonders what’s next: Luggage carts?
He said he knows at least one student – at a school that is “notorious for disproportionate homework” – who wised up and started carting his books around.
“It is an issue,” he said. “It can create back pain and discomfort – especially in girls, who are prone to scoliosis.
“It should be less of an issue than it was years ago,” he said.
“Once or twice a year, we do get those calls and we physicians have to be smart enough to ask that question – especially with elementary children
– ‘are you carrying a backpack?’ ” he said.
How often is it worn? How many books does the student regularly carry? Both are important questions, but Miller thinks the most important is “how is it being worn?”
“With a backpack, the biggest thing that tends to be the problem is they’re not worn properly,” he said.
Too often, he said, students’ postures are lax or skewed because the pack is carried on one side – usually in an attempt to look cool.
“That causes you to hike that shoulder up, causing you to make corrections for the weight,” he said. “Over time, (it) can lead to complaints.”
Boy, you're gonna' carry that weight
How can the load be lightened?
Richland School District is trying to issue iPads to 12th-grade students. Richland Superintendent Tom Fleming initially said he wanted to supply his seventh- to 12th-graders with them, but those plans were scaled back. E-books and a single, lightweight e-reader should seem like a no-brainers, but tablets, despite being the hottest new technology of the past two years, have yet to become affordable on a mass scale.
Since hardbound books look to be sticking around for a while, Masiello recommends reading the instructions that come with your student’s backpack.
He said a wealth of documentation about proper backpack use can be found online.
Miller said a backpack with two shoulder straps and a front-facing buckle is a “big, big plus.” The buckle can help keep the student’s back in an upright, neutral position, with the weight centered.
Keeping posture in mind at all times – while difficult – is a huge key to staving off arthritic issues later in life, he said.
“If you do good things consistently, you’re going to usually get good results. It’s about lifestyle.”