Kate Bancroft, 9, claims sweaty and achy shoulders are the only side effect of lugging around her large, fluorescent orange L.L. Bean backpack. But as another school year begins, her family is more worried.
"My grandma has a fit," says Bancroft, a fifth-grader at Pinewood Elementary School in Baltimore County. "She says, 'You're all going to have back problems.' "
Grandma may be right.
An overstuffed backpack can contribute to chronic back pain, fatigue, bad posture and more, say doctors and school officials who view these unwieldy academic accessories as a growing health concern.
A study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission published last year reported that about 240 children ages 5-14 received hospital treatment for back strain and pain due to transporting monster packs.
"Most youngsters are carrying weights equivalent to a major hike," says Dr. Wayne Yankus, chair of school health for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "You wouldn't carry the same backpack you wear to school if you were going to do the Amazon."
Today's Renaissance students have a lot on their shoulders, from musical instruments to athletic gear to textbooks and binders, some of which are extraordinarily weighty.
"It's amazing how heavy [backpacks] get," says Dena Love, principal of Pinewood.
Bulky backpacks pose the biggest problems in late elementary school through middle school, where students are growing rapidly, according to Yankus.
A backpack should not exceed 10-15 percent of the student's weight, he says. But some studies have said 20-30 percent is safe.
"I wouldn't want kids carrying any more than 10 or 15 pounds," says Dr. Richard Hinton, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in pediatrics and sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital.
Hinton maintains there is no conclusive evidence that overweight backpacks cause any lasting damage.
"It will not result in scoliosis or permanent curvature of the spine," he says.
The one-shoulder approach is the biggest faux pas a backpacker can make, in Hinton's opinion. It can overdevelop muscles on one side and cause additional strain.
At Pinewood, students file in, practically dwarfed by their Jansports and L.L. Beans, many of which have clusters of decorative key chains dangling off.
Nine-year-old Sam Donnelly's massive pack juts out about two feet behind him. Still, the fourth grader, who insists his pack gives him no trouble, has the bag casually slung over one shoulder.
"It's not cool to wear your backpack right," says Donnelly's mother, Patti. "I bet I'll never be able to get him to wear it properly."
Lucas Zalduendo, 10, has the right idea. The fifth-grader is wearing his pack's waist strap, which helps distribute the weight to the pelvis, and his shoulder straps are snug and high like they should be.
As Fern Applegate walks her 6-year-old son Ted into school, she glances around and says: "They look like they're struggling." Paperback books instead of hardcovers could help lighten the load, she suggests.
Bancroft blames her 3.7 pound social studies text for her burden.
"We need 'America Will Be' every day for school," she says.
Supplying two sets of books could lessen the strain. But it's a costly proposition, reserved only for students with proven back problems, says Love, the school principal.
Pam Frankle, Pinewood's school nurse, has noticed many posture problems among the students, even when the backpack comes off.
"They're used to slouched shoulders," she says. "That may not cause scoliosis, but the muscles get sore."
At Pinewood at least, it seems books, binders and school supplies are the main bulk culprits. Tennis shoes and jackets are also common accomplices. And every once in a while, you run into something interesting like stuffed animals, decks of trading cards and other toys.
While these students may not carry the weight of the world on their backs, things can still get heavy if you're a fourth-grader.
"It's a shame they have to carry so much at such a young age," Patti Donnelly says.
An overstuffed backpack can contribute to chronic back pain, bad posture and more.
Get your spine in line and lessen your burden with these tips from Dr. Wayne Yankus, chair of school health for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Dr. Richard Hinton, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in pediatrics and sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital.
1. The load shouldn't exceed 20 percent of body weight. Aim for 10 percent to 15 percent.
2. Stack stuff up instead of out.
3. Put heavier items in the back of your bag.
4. Keep the straps snug and the pack close to your body.
5. Wear both straps!
6. Walk straight and tall.
7. Make sure weight is evenly distributed.
8. If there's a waist strap, wear it. This will help distribute weight to sturdy pelvic muscles.
9. Remove all unnecessary items, like last semester's binder.
10. To avoid cramping up, switch hands often if you're carrying more than your backpack.