The University Record, February 8, 1999

Ever-present backpacks put a heavy load on teens’ backs

From Health System Public Relations

Today’s teen-agers can count on a number of milestones to highlight their high school days—earning a driver’s license, starting a first job and applying to college. Now they can add one more event to the list: experiencing a backache.

Up to 60 percent of young people will have back pain by the time they reach age 18. It’s a discomfort they’ll likely have again as adults, to the point of missing work or having to visit a doctor.

There is no single cause of back pain in teens or adults. Culprits include inactivity, overexertion, improper or heavy lifting, certain athletic activities, cigarette smoking and being overweight.

But for teens, another cause may be backpacks overloaded with textbooks, notebooks, cosmetics, clothes and the like. Add to the heavy load the improper wearing of the backpack—often slung over one shoulder—and young people may be feeling a bit sore.

“In children, we just don’t know if those kinds of heavy loads cause problems or not. But wearing a heavy, heavy backpack, when your muscles and your bones aren’t ready for that, is not a good thing,” says Andrew Haig, director of the U-M Spine Program. “I could imagine that kids, when they start out wearing that kind of stuff, really can complain of some backaches. As they get more in shape they have fewer problems. In general, if it’s not necessary to carry that much, they really should back off,” Haig says.

Back pain is an all-too-common problem nationwide. The American College of Rheumatology reports that low back pain sidelines 5.4 million Americans every year at a cost of $16 billion. Up to 90 percent of Americans will have had some type of back problem by the time they retire.

“Teenagers think they’re not going to have back pain. They think they’re fairly invincible and they don’t think about health care very much,” Haig says. “But, in fact, the teen-age years are when people begin to get backaches.”

A 1996 Finnish study published in the journal Spine found low back pain to be a common complaint among children and adolescents, to the point of disrupting their school work and leisure activities. Six percent of 10-year-olds complained of pain, increasing to 18 percent among 14- and 16-year-olds.

In 1997, Spine published a Danish study that found low back pain “increased greatly” in teen years, with more than one-half of teens reporting at least one episode of lower back pain.

Both inactivity and too much physical activity can lead to back pain in young people. Teens involved in sports or other physical activity may well pull, strain or injure a back muscle. And then there are the inactive young people Haig calls “couch potatoes.” In Michigan, one-third of school-age children are overweight.

“These kids are sitting at their computer and not really being physically active. These are the kids who maybe are uncoordinated because they aren’t so active, maybe they’re not strong enough to lift the darn computer when it comes off the loading dock. Those are the folks that will get hurt more often,” Haig says.

Acute back pain often goes away on its own. For teens suffering from back pain, Haig recommends stretching the muscles. Aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen sodium also help reduce the pain. “If you have a backache, the best thing you can do is move around, keep moving, fight the pain as best you can,” Haig says.

“Most people fit into that category in which their pain is around for a little bit and disappears, and it’s OK to take care of that at home.”

Teen back pain at-a-glance

• A 12-year-old has a 10–15 percent chance of experiencing back pain.

• An 18-year-old has a 50–60 percent chance of back pain.

• Lower back pain disables 5.4 million people nationwide each year.

• There is no one cause of back pain. Sources include inactivity, overexertion, being overweight, sports injuries and overloaded backpacks.

Suggestions for correctly carrying a backpack

• Use a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps.

• Place the heaviest items in the pack closest to your back.

• Carry the pack on both shoulders, not slung over only one shoulder.

• Pull the pack close to your body so it it rides on the back and not the shoulders.

• Don’t carry more than 10–15 percent of your body weight.