Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Getting through the day can be a heavy load

Students carrying overly weighted backpacks could be at risk of injury

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Backpacks can be a pain in the neck — and back and sometimes the legs, especially for students whose textbooks, notebooks, gadgets and food can add several pounds.

And particularly if the packs are worn improperly — on one shoulder, forcing all the weight to one side of a body that’s still developing.

Silver Spring resident Alex Lutz, 17, a rising senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, remembers what it was like carrying a heavy backpack in middle school and during her freshman and sophomore years.

‘‘I’m the type of person who carries everything, just in case I need it,” she said. ‘‘It got to the point where my backpack was huge. I looked like a turtle.”

And it weighed close to 20 pounds, she said. Change was necessary.

So she switched to a more fashionable, functional canvas tote bag. She also learned to carry fewer items. But, she added, ‘‘It still gets heavy.”

For students who carry a locker’s worth of weight, Dr. Steven Tuck, an orthopedic surgeon at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, feels your pain. And he’s seen it, too.

Tuck has treated muscle pulls and strains associated with backpacks. The problem — lifting and carrying too much weight, unevenly distributed on the young frames of developing bodies.

‘‘We see muscle injuries from kids lifting them onto their backs,” everywhere from the neck to the shoulders, back and buttocks, Tuck said.

Tuck started seeing these kind of complaints 10 to 12 years ago. Parents were coming in with children who had back, shoulder and leg pain, asking him if heavy backpacks could be the problem.

‘‘I said probably not, but then I asked how much weight they were really carrying around in these backpacks,” he said.

One parent brought a backpack in and the doctor weighed it — 52 pounds.

‘‘This kid weighed 58 pounds,” he said. ‘‘It was a joke. The kid was carrying his body weight.”

If students insist on carrying heavy backpacks, Tuck recommends one with two wide, padded shoulder straps, a padded back and a waist support.

‘‘Once it’s positioned right, they can handle it, but kids don’t want to carry it evenly positioned on their back,” he said.

Sally Deike, continuing education director for the Silver Spring-based National Association of School Nurses, said backpack pain can affect schoolwork.

‘‘Just like anything else, if you’re uncomfortable and there are other issues you’re concentrating on, you’re not focusing in class,” she said.

Tuck and Deike said the answer may be more frequent trips to lockers to drop off books. But they also say that might not be possible. Some schools have policies restricting times students can visit their lockers and some schools are so big that it makes more sense for students to carry books they will need.

‘‘I don’t know about other schools, but at Blair you have eight minutes between classes,” Lutz said. ‘‘Personally, I don’t use my locker at all. ... I know where it is, but it’s such a hassle.”

However, at Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Burtonsville, students are not allowed to have backpacks in classrooms. They are, however, allowed to go to their lockers in the morning, before and after lunch, and before they go home, Principal Samuel Rivera said.

In a school of 1,250 students designed for about 750, the policy came down to a matter of safety, storage and distraction, Rivera said. Kids carry a binder for their morning classes and one for the afternoon. Classrooms have textbooks, but Rivera said the textbooks are often supplements to classroom instruction and can stay in lockers or at home. Items needed in class can be carried under one arm.

‘‘It can be cumbersome in the hallways with kids lugging around their backpacks. And in the classroom, where do you put them?” Rivera said.

Some say rolling backpacks, similar to luggage used by commuters and travelers, could help, but Rivera said they are not allowed in his busy hallways and students like Lutz say they’re just not practical.

‘‘At Blair, it can be like the Beltway with stop-and-go traffic,” Lutz said. ‘‘It’s person-to-person and you’d annoy people and people would annoy you.”

So what’s the answer?

Lutz has found relief with efficiency, function and fashion, carrying fewer items in a ‘‘plain, preppy and cute” tote that can be carried with a shoulder strap or in one hand.

Tuck said a second set of books would help, but not all schools have the money to buy them.

Wearing the backpacks properly is the key, Deike said.

‘‘Maybe it’s education of teachers and kids to wear the backpacks as they’re designed to be used — and I’m sure that’s done to some degree — but they might not hear that message,” he said.