Saturday, August 13, 2011

How kids can avoid the danger of back-breaking backpacks

(Published in Enrich, magazine of Mercury Drug Corporation, in 2010)

THERE OUGHT TO BE a law against having elementary and high school students lugging most of their heavy textbooks and notebooks to school five days a week. The good news for students and their parents is there will be such a law—if and when the current 15th Congress comes around to approving it.

In August 2009 during the 14th Congress, Congressman Carmelo Lazatin of Pampanga filed a bill that would limit the weight of bags children in both public and private schools are required to bring to class daily.

This legislation or House Bill 06644 has been pending with the Committee on Basic Education and Culture since that same month. Its full title is “An Act Limiting the Amount of Weight of Bags Carried by Children in School and Implementing Measures to Protect Schoolchildren's Health from the Adverse Effect of Heavy School Bag”.

Far too heavy school backpacks

Lazatin cited complaints from parents in his district who said they discovered their children were carrying bags about 40 percent of their body weight. He noted several international studies that recommend schools limit the weight of loaded bags to a minimum 15 percent of the body weight of students.

Carrying a backpack weighing more than 15 percent of body weight renders a child unable to maintain proper posture while standing and causes him to bend forward, making breathing more difficult. Ideally, a backpack and its contents should weigh less than 10 percent of a child's body weight, according to some sources.

The problem of heavy school backpacks isn’t unique to our country, however. It’s also a grave problem in the USA, Asia and Europe. According to medical sources in the USA, one of the major causes of potential injury to American school children that often goes unnoticed is the school backpack.

Back Pain

A study by the American Physical Therapy Association found over 50 percent of children surveyed carried backpacks heavier than 15 percent of their body weight, the suggested weight limit. Children that carry more than this percentage can develop serious back pain and other problems that require treatment.

Coping with heavy loads presents another problem since children tend to lean forward or arch their backs, causing them to develop poor posture. A study conducted by the Hong Kong Society for Child Health and Development in 1988 showed close to five percent of Grade 3 to Grade 6 students developed back problems such as mild to serious spinal deformities due to the heavy bags these students carried to school daily.

In Europe, a study conducted in 1994 among Scandinavian students revealed a high probability for spinal problems in school children who carried backpacks, no matter how they carried them. That brings up another major problem about backpacks: how to carry these correctly.

The same Scandinavian study found that 54 percent of the children who carried their backpacks on one shoulder complained of back pains, and that 45 percent of the two-shoulder pack wearers also complained of back pains. It also showed that girls were more likely to experience backpack-related pain than boys.

Probably because it’s more “ma-porma,” many students sling their backpacks over one shoulder. This can, however, cause the student to lean to the other side to compensate for the extra weight, resulting in back pain and a strained neck and shoulders. Children who sling their backpacks over one shoulder or who use one-strap bags that put weight on only one shoulder might become victims of scoliosis (a sideways deviation of the spine) because of the uneven weight distribution. Medical sources say constantly slinging a backpack over one shoulder could cause damage to one’s spine.

Be on the lookout for these warning signs that your child’s school backpack might be too heavy for him or her:
  • He experiences pain while wearing the backpack.
  • There’s a tingling sensation and numbness in his arm or arms.
  • He struggles to put on or take off the backpack.
  • A change in his posture when wearing the backpack.
School Backpacks for Light Loads Only
It should be remembered that school backpacks, at least those commonly used in this country, aren’t mostly designed to carry heavy loads. A backpack with wheels (“rolling backpacks”) or mounted on a two-wheeled trolley is a better choice for lugging heavy school loads weighing more than 15 percent of the user’s body weight than the very common backpack.

What passes off as a normal school backpack is the frameless and non-rigid type suitable for carrying light loads weighing less than five kilograms. Many of these backpacks also lack adjustable hip belts that distribute weight across the body and padded shoulder straps for more comfort.

To carry more than five kilograms safely and comfortably means a student has to use either a backpack with an external frame or an internal frame. These types of backpacks are rare in the Philippines, however, and many of those available are made especially for backpacking, hiking and other outdoor activities for adults.

Framed backpacks are more often used by soldiers who tend to carry heavy loads. Soldiers also use large backpacks that can carry loads over 10 kg. This heavy weight is mostly supported by padded hip belts as the hips are stronger than the shoulders and thus able to bear more weight safely than the shoulders and spine.

Backpack Safety
Since your child is in school for eight months in a year, it’s wise to avoid the dangers that come with back breaking backpacks. Therefore, school backpacks must be properly used to avoid injury to your child. Have your child practice “backpack safety” by:
  • Carrying not more than 15 percent of his body weight. Use a rolling backpack or a two-wheeled trolley for heavier loads, or if he regularly has to bring heavy loads to school.
  • Making him use both straps to balance the load carried and to avoid spinal injuries. He must avoid slinging a heavy backpack over one shoulder.
  • Buying the proper backpack. This means buying a backpack appropriate to your child's size. Oversize backpacks are no good since they tempt a child to pack more than he can carry. A backpack with an adjustable hip belt, adjustable shoulder straps and a padded back would be ideal if available.
  • A backpack with two or more separate compartments (rather than one large compartment) will distribute a load more evenly.
  • When packing books, it’s better to pack the heaviest books at the back, that is, on the side that touches the child’s back, so the shoulder straps and hip belt work more effectively to prevent unnecessary back strain.
They’re Not Roman Soldiers
Over two thousand years ago, the legionaries of the Roman Empire were among the toughest fighting men in the ancient world. These soldiers marched from one end of their vast empire to the other carrying everything with them on their person or on their backs: weapons, food, water, utensils, clothes and other necessities.

The Roman Army discovered that for its soldiers to march and fight, they could only carry 30 kg or less. That was about 40 percent or more of their body weight, and Roman legionaries (mostly men in their 20s) were renowned for their strength and toughness.

Today, we have reported instances where Filipino students regularly carry to school books and gear weighing up to 40 percent of their body weight.

That’s a 40 kg child hauling 16 kg of gear. Filipino students aren’t Roman legionaries. Why then should they bear the same physical burden?