LEWISTON — They show up at Pediatric Associates for appointments, still wearing the overloaded backpacks they lugged through the school day, which doctors worry could mean looming health problems.

As students forgo using lockers at school, doctors say backpacks have grown too heavy.

The weight, combined with how students carry backpacks, is a worry at Pediatric Associates in Lewiston and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Linda Glass of Pediatric Associates said she’s seen middle school students carrying backpacks that weigh as much as 40 pounds, and high school girls “who weigh 95 pounds soaking wet are carrying 70 pounds on their backs,” Glass said, adding: “No, no!” 

While those weights are extreme, most students are carrying backpacks that are too heavy, she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends backpacks weigh about 10 percent of a student’s body weight, with the maximum weight no more than 20 percent.

That means the backpack of a student who weighs 50 pounds should be between  5 to 10 pounds; a student who weighs 100, between 10 to 20 pounds; and a student who weighs 150 pounds should carry no more than 15 to 30 pounds.

Doctors at Pediatric Associates, which has a patient population of more than 10,000, are seeing some health problems now from heavy backpacks. Glass worries more health problems are in students’ futures.

“It is one of the concerns we have,” Glass said. For a while her office weighed backpacks, which confirmed many were too heavy. “We’ve starting to see the evolving or starting of curves in their backs,” Glass said. “There’s more complaints about headaches, back pain, shoulder aches, soreness, stuff like that that we think are related because of how they put the backpack on their back.”

Problems that could be in store for some students as they age include premature bad backs, painful necks, arthritis and joint problems.

Heavy backpacks can create bad posture, Glass said, as students lean forward to offset the bag’s weight. According to the Academy of American Pediatrics, heavy backpacks can also compress the chest cavity and decrease lung capacity.

Growing up weighted down

In lower grades the weight of most students’ backpacks are fine, Glass said. The problem ramps up in middle school when students begin changing classes —where they need different books —and stop using lockers. 

Because students’ bones are still developing, they’re more prone to injury. “They don’t have the same ability to hold weight as an adult does,” Glass said. “Their bones are not solid.”

Girls are more prone to back, neck and shoulder problems because of the natural curve in their backs. And, compared to boys, girls’ spines are also smaller and more vulnerable.

Another backpack problem is how students wear them, often with the straps too long, with bags hanging down in the middle of their backs where the curve is, and/or resting on their bums.

That gives students bad posture that lingers even after the backpack is off.

“It’s going to curve the body like this,” Glass said as she demonstrated. “The shoulders sloop forward. What they’re doing is wrecking their whole posture because they’ve increased the middle curve in the back, almost a Hunchback of Notre Dame”-like posture.

Bad posture leads to health problems and joint problems, she said, so “I tell them, ‘Get it off your bum.'”

Backpacks should be pulled up high on the back so the weight rests on the flattest part between the shoulder blades. 

They should never be slung over one shoulder. A one-shoulder carry increases the curvature of the spine, and brings on long-term risk of adult arthritis.

“All the weight is on one side. You can see them tip,” Glass said. “I say, ‘no, no, no! You need to get it on two shoulders. That spine is still growing.’”

Compounding the problem is bad posture from cell phones, iPads and computers.

“They’re like this,” Glass said, “hunched over on screens, phones. Everything is slumpy, slumpy.” 

Take the load off

During physicals, backpacks are a topic now covered. Pediatricians ask students and parents about how much their backpacks weigh, how they are carried and talk about risks.

Older students are receiving checks for scoliosis, Glass said. “I have them bend so I can watch the hip bones and shoulders to make sure they don’t have a curve in their spine.”

Many parents are unaware of how backpacks worn incorrectly can create health risks, Glass said.

“If I say to them: ‘Your child’s shoulders are uneven. It looks like it’s trying to curve,’” that’s enough to make a parent tell their student: “OK, you have to use two arms.”

She’d like to see schools ensure they’re allowing students enough time when changing classes, discouraging students from carrying everything in their backpacks.

Glass recommends parents regularly empty their child’s backpacks “and get the junk out” to lighten the load.

And, she adds, whenever possible, students should take the backpack off and put it down. 

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Lewiston High School students recently lug backpacks between classes. Dr. Linda Glass of Lewiston’s Pediatric Associates says most middle and high school students are carrying backpacks that are too heavy and worn too low, which can cause premature back pain, arthritis and joint pain. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

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Dr. Linda Glass of Pediatric Associates of Lewiston said backpacks, including how to wear them, are discussed during annual physical exams. Her practice is seeing the start of curves in students’ backs  from carrying backpacks that are too heavy, and carrying them the wrong way. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends backpacks weigh between 10 and 20 percent of a student’s body weight. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents and students:

* Choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back.

* Pack light. Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back. The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of a child’s body weight. Go through the bag weekly to get the junk out, and ask: “Do they need all that stuff?”

* Remind children to always use both shoulder straps. A prolonged practice of slinging a backpack over one shoulder can cause strain or injury

* Tighten the straps so the backpack doesn’t hang low.

* Reduce how often backpacks are worn.

Lewiston High School students forgo lockers as they change classes. Dr. Linda Glass of Lewiston’s Pediatric Associates said students carrying heavy backpacks, and carrying them on one shoulder, invites health problems. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

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