Do Backpacks Cause Scoliosis?
By Savanna Stone //
I remember the days as I started to get older, my backpack started to get heavier. And heavier. And heavier. My mom would pick me up from school and lift my backpack into the car for me, and I saw the worry grow on her face as she realized my backpack weighed more than I did. I wasn’t even small as a kid. Then I learned about scoliosis when some doctors came to my school so that they could look at our spines. I didn’t have scoliosis (and I still don’t), but I started to worry that I soon might. I’m sure my face looked like my mom’s face when she had realized my backpack was too heavy. That day, the doctors said that heavy backpacks cause scoliosis . . . or maybe it was just a rumor. Either way, I went home and asked for a rolling backpack. I got one because my mom was already worried. It might have even been her idea. I wasn’t even the only kid who went to school with a roller backpack the next day. Were we all too paranoid? Do backpacks even cause scoliosis? And should you be worried about your kids getting scoliosis as they go back to school this year with a heavier backpack?
What is scoliosis?
Scoliosis is an unnatural curvature of the spine. You know how the spine has that S shape from front to back? That curve is okay. It’s when the spine curves from side-to-side that it becomes a problem. If you notice your child has uneven shoulders, hips, rib cage, waist, or shoulder blades, those might be signs of scoliosis. Other signs include having one leg appear longer than the other or developing skin changes on your back (dimples, hairy patches, or color abnormalities). If you suspect that you or your child has scoliosis, take him or her to the doctor. Thankfully, you shouldn’t worry too much about scoliosis because it only affects 2 to 3 percent1 of the population, and schools perform tests on the students during the age that it is most detectable, just like the test I had when I was a kid. It’s called the Adam’s forward bend test2 where they test children for scoliosis by having the children lean forward to expose the shape of the spine.
Another sign of scoliosis is back pain.3 The curvature of the spine strains the muscles and causes pain. Many people shrug off their back pain when it actually is scoliosis. Pain caused by scoliosis is more frequent in adults, though children can experience it as well. Pain from scoliosis could be lower back pain, stiffness, or fatigue. You should contact your doctor if the pain doesn’t improve after a long period of time (3 to 4 weeks), if your pain stops you from doing regular activities, or if you have pain shooting down your legs. The pain occurs because of pressure on your spinal discs as your spine curves. The curvature of the spine can also pinch, irritate, or stretch the nerves around your spine. And it can strain your muscles and joints, adding additional wear and tear and causing inflammation. It can also make your muscles tight.
How can we slow the progression of scoliosis using backpacks?
Scientific research flip-flops on the subject, and there isn’t much of a clear answer to this question. Scientists don’t really know much, but it is most likely that scoliosis is genetic and can’t be prevented. They think, however, that they can slow its progression by doing a few things4 with those backpacks:
Don’t let your kids carry their backpacks on one shoulder. If you do have scoliosis in your family, carrying a backpack on the shoulder can bring out the scoliosis when you didn’t notice it before, making the curve worse. Even if your family doesn’t have a predisposition to scoliosis, carrying a backpack on one shoulder can cause neck and back pain, so it’s still not a good thing. The weight of backpacks should be evenly balanced. Because of this, the worst bag for your back is a side bag, which makes you lean to one side or focuses on only one side of your back muscles.
Don’t let your kids wear their backpack loosely over their lower backs. Make sure they wear the straps tightly with the backpack as close to their backs as possible and above their hips. If they have a waist strap, have them use it. This will slow the progression of scoliosis or help reduce back and neck pain.
Buy special backpacks. Buy backpacks with padded straps for more comfort. Buy rolling backpacks. Buy backpacks that are especially for scoliosis. Do anything to help your child have a healthy back that stays healthy, especially if your family is prone to scoliosis.
If your child refuses to do what you say . . . Let’s face it. There are just some kids who aren’t going to listen no matter how good of a parent you are. If there is a zero percent chance of getting your middle- or high-schooler to wear their backpack correctly, try talking with their teachers to see if your kids can leave their textbooks at school or at home. Or if you’re lucky, your school might provide laptops for their students (something that wasn’t an option in my day but my niece has one from her school). Also try having your children clean out their backpacks often so that their backpacks can be as light as possible.
The bottom line is that scientists don’t know much about the correlation between backpacks and scoliosis. But there are some things to do to help slow the progression of scoliosis or just regular back pain. Use these tips to make sure your kids don’t stress out about scoliosis like I did when I was little. I sure inherited a lot from my mom—except for scoliosis, thankfully.