Knight Ridder Newspapers
Being a kid these days can be a real pain -- in the back, especially.
With schoolchildren lugging enough books in their backpacks to stock a rural library -- not to mention clothes, radios and the occasional Game Boy -- young backs are being twisted, turned and torqued in ways that are inflaming concerns in doctors, parents and even kids themselves.
And nobody can say for sure what the long-term ramifications are of hauling around a load equivalent to 15, 20, 25 percent of a child's body weight.
This much physicians and researchers are certain of: Parents shouldn't dismiss the complaints of an aching child. That's particularly true today, when schools are being built without lockers, when even elementary school students are hoisting books from class to class to class. The load has grown so onerous that some children are forsaking their backpacks for small suitcases on wheels.
``Listen to your child,'' says Dr. Esperanza Vargas-Posada, a rehabilitation specialist at Baptist Children's Hospital in Miami who has seen cases of children with lower back strain related to overloaded backpacks. ``Sometimes, we as adults are not very receptive when a child complains of back pain -- we think of back pain as something of adults.''
In an age when parents fret about guns in school, drugs in school, a twinge of back pain might not seem like a big deal. But it is to Victor Gonzalez, whose 8-year-old daughter Adriana is starting third grade this week at Snapper Creek Elementary in Kendall, Fla., a Miami suburb.
When he and his wife go shopping for a backpack for Adriana, they look for a bag with sturdy, cushioned straps, a bag that has a belt that can be latched around the waist. And they make sure Adriana follows the cardinal rule of backpack toting: Always use both straps, so the weight is evenly distributed.
``As strong as they are when they're young, they can develop back problems. They're still growing, their spines are still developing,'' Gonzalez says.
Their concerns, it turns out, are well placed. Just ask David Pascoe, a professor and exercise physiologist at Auburn University in Alabama. Pascoe and his colleagues have investigated the effects of backpacks on the bodies of college students as well as children between the ages of 11 and 13.
In a survey of 421 college students, the researchers reported 414 had symptoms of soreness, pain or numbness related to backpacks. The most common complaint: Nearly 57 percent of the women and 23 percent of the men had experienced shoulder pain, a result of straining straps digging into sagging shoulders.
And among the younger group -- two-thirds of them reported having experienced muscle soreness -- Pascoe discovered significant differences in the alignment of the spine in children who used both backpack straps and those who let the bag dangle from one shoulder. The researchers also found that students who carried athletic-style bags to class -- the kind that swing like a pendulum at your side -- suffered from temporarily contorted spines.
``That single strap really altered the spine to one side,'' Pascoe says. ``We've made these kids into pack mules in essence. Are we going to end up with a bunch of hunched over kids? I don't think so. Until we fully know the danger, I would be a little bit concerned.''
If Pascoe had spoken with 8-year-old Cheryl Arroyo -- who will begin the school year in Miami with a brand new backpack festooned with Winnie the Pooh -- this is what she would have told him about her backpack: ``It gets heavy when I put stuff in it. It feels like it's hurting my shoulders, but it stops hurting when I take it off.''
It's something that needs to be studied more intensively, Pascoe says -- especially the permanent damage, if any, that might be done by weighty backpacks. So far, most other researchers interested in the topic have concentrated on the kind of heavy-duty, frame-reinforced packs that are a common sight on military bases and hiking trails.
G. Patricia Cantwell thinks something else needs to be studied, too: The risk posed to children who wear backpacks while riding in a car.
Cantwell, a critical-care specialist at University of Miami/Jackson Children's Hospital, is familiar with a Jacksonville car wreck that left an 8-year-old paralyzed. The child had been riding in the front seat of her parents' car when it was involved in a low-speed accident. The air bag inflated, and the child's head, left inches away from the head rest because she was wearing the backpack, snapped backward and resulted in paralyzing spinal damage.
For the more common soreness associated with carrying a backpack, this is the prescription from Dr. Stephen Stricker, an orthopedic specialist at Miami Children's Hospital: a short course of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, accompanied by ginger stretching of aching muscles.
``And,'' Stricker says, ``I usually just give the common sense advice to use a smaller backpack or put less weight in it.''
Elizabeth Knight, 8, has come up with her own solution: one of those suitcases on wheels.
``It's very easy to handle,'' Elizabeth says, adding with no hint of sentimentality: ``I canceled off my real book bag and just threw it away.''