/ 8 March 2007

Too heavy a load

A recent study done by the department of occupational therapy at the University of the Free State investigated the spinal deviation of children in grade 5 and compared those who carry school bags with those who don’t. The results showed postural deviation in children who carry bags, especially if they are not carrying them properly.

Unfortunately the school system demands that children carry heavy workbooks to and from school each day for homework and studies, and it gets worse the higher the grade. If the child participates in sports, there is likely to be the additional weight of sports clothing and equipment, often carried in a separate bag. The most a child should be expected to carry is 10% of his or her body weight.

The outcome of a heavy school bag is lower back pain, poor posture, spinal deformity over time and back problems in adulthood.

Parents and teachers need to become aware of the loads they are expecting children to carry, and the influence it can have on their spines. The further a child has to walk to school, the more affected he or she is. The children in the study (380 in total) spent an average of 30 minutes per day carrying their bags. On average a grade 5 child’s school bag weighed 5,95 kg and a grade 11 child’s bag weighed 6,5 kgs.

The study indicated deviation to the side and/or backwards of children’s spines when carrying heavy school bags. Over time the deviation becomes evident even when the child is not carrying the case. The grade 11 children had a higher level of spinal deviation than the grade 5 children. This indicated that the deviations become more permanent with time. A child’s spine is still developing during the school years, and carrying the occasional heavy object will not result in any permanent damage. However, children carry their school bags on a daily basis, and often between class as well. It is the constant additional pressure to the spine that can cause long-term damage to the spine.

Preventative measures include giving your child a school case that has wheels, and encouraging your child to use the wheels. When carrying a school/sports bag, ensure that it is evenly carried across both shoulders, and not slung over one. Encourage your child to only bring home the books that he or she will need for homework that afternoon. When packing a school bag, make sure the contents are evenly distributed. Ensure that the straps on the bag are not too long as this can cause additional strain to the lower back.

Teachers should recommend the use of three thin exercise books per subject for the year as opposed to one thick hard-cover one, thus reducing the load when the child needs to take work home for six subjects. Teachers should also reinforce the importance of using wheels on school bags or carrying bags properly.

In class, children should practise sitting up straight so as to develop the muscles around the spine, and follow good exercise routines. Swimming, ballet and karate give good postural strengthening. Postural activities include doing push-ups, wheelbarrow walking, crab walking, stretching and rolling.

Back pain is a common cause of absenteeism in adolescents, and carrying a heavy load can exacerbate this. Let’s keep school bags less than 10% of the child’s body mass.

Paula Barnard is the editor of RemSpecED (a publication on remedial and special education)