School bags are getting heavier and our kid’s necks, shoulders and spines are bearing the brunt.
Secondary school students carry the heaviest loads at a time when their adolescent spines are developing and their muscular strength has not reached adequate levels of maturity. Research shows that up to 77% of secondary school students report musculoskeletal symptoms in the neck, shoulders, upper and lower back.
Heavier school bags and longer carriage duration are thought to be contributing factors in the development of this pain. Research in New Zealand has shown average bag weights at around 11-12% of body weight in secondary school students. The accepted International guideline for this age group is a maximum of 10%.
The issue appears to be greatest at secondary school where students often do not have access to lockers. These students carry the full load of a day’s books not only to and from school, but around school each day. On sports days these bag weights increase or the students carry an extra bag contributing to the load.
Students carrying greater than 10% of their weight are certainly placing themselves at risk of developing pain.
Apart from the obvious need to reduce the weight of our bags to internationally acceptable standards (10% of body weight maximum) there are a number of other factors that we can influence to reduce the risk to our shoulders and spines.
Access to school lockers allows students to store heavier texts during the day and access them only when required. This single factor can reduce bag weight considerably.
Backpacks are the best option for school bags as they allow equal weight distribution over the shoulders and upper back. They must be worn correctly on both shoulders to achieve this. Tighten the adjustable shoulder straps to keep the weight against the spine and choose a bag that fits the students back. Shape and depth is an important factor to keep the contents of the bag as close to the spine as possible.
Inclusion of a padded waist strap allows weight to be carried through the hips reducing shoulder and neck load. All bag straps should be adjustable and shoulder straps need to be wide enough to distribute the weight.
Heavier books and items need to be packed as closely to the spine as possible and preventing items moving during carriage will help to reduce the stress on the shoulders and back.
Addressing the problem associated with backpacks is an important factor in protecting our children’s spines for the future.
Mike Stewart is a Manipulative Physiotherapist at the Oamaru Physiotherapy Clinic. He has post graduate qualifications in Manipulative Therapy and Sports Medicine and is a Registered Physiotherapy Acupuncturist.
He has toured as a Physiotherapist with the Maori All Blacks from 1996 to 2008.
Source: Oamaru Physiotherapy Clinic written by Mike Stewart and Michelle Sintmaartensdyk