Can E-Books Lift the Burden of Heavy Backpacks?

If you need an excuse to buy the latest hand-held gadget for your family—such as the Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.—you may be in luck. Some people are advocating using e-books in the classroom for health and educational purposes.

Winn Sams, a Columbus, N.C.-based chiropractor is campaigning for schools to lighten the load on children’s backs by replacing clunky textbooks with e-books because heavy backpacks could harm their developing spines.

Four years ago, Sams lifted one of her daughter’s backpacks and was shocked to find out how heavy it was. “Knowing what I know about the body, I couldn’t just do nothing,” Sams said. “I then contacted my state legislator about it. When I initially called, he didn’t say much. Then, a couple of years later, he called me back and the movement started blossoming from there.”

In the past few years, the use of e-books has skyrocketed. In May, Amazon announced that Kindle e-books are outselling both paperback and hardback books combined, and Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch recently said that the company sells three times as many digital books as physical books on its website,

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education recently acknowledged that “learning is transitioning from the traditional print-based classroom experience to incorporating a digital learning environment inside and outside the classroom.” In 2010, the Department announced it would allocate money to “drive the investment in and development of new learning technologies.” Additionally, the Texas Legislature last month passed a bill that allows schools to use textbook money for digital technology.

Despite the growing interest in incorporating digital technology in schools, few are paying enough attention to the immediate health implications of heavy backpacks, Sams said. “Some kids are carrying twice their bodyweight. Their spines are still developing and these heavy backpacks are setting the way for spine issues,” she said. “Posture has radically changed, as well as the way kids walk. They have to plod their feet when lugging around a heavy backpack.

“Heavy backpacks can cause permanent damage to growing kids’ backs, and can sometimes result in scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. We need to present awareness of what is happening,” Sams said.

According to a study published in the January 2010 of Spine, MRI scans showed a compression of the spinal discs and spinal curvature caused by typical school backpack loads in children. The study included eight children, mean age 11 years old. Heavy backpack loads were associated with increased left or right curvature of the lower spine, and compression of the intervertebral discs, according to Timothy Neuschwander, M.D., of the University of California, San Diego Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

"Low back pain in children may be worsened by discogenic [disc-related] or postural changes," Neuschwander and colleagues wrote. “This could have long-term implications, as children with back pain are at increased risk of having back pain as adults.”

However, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), even though heavy backpacks are linked to posture problems, they do not cause scoliosis. “Sports activities or heavy backpacks do not cause scoliosis or make a curve worse,” said AAOS. “Scoliosis is congenital, or is caused by underlying medical conditions, such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.

Additionally, Matthew Dobbs, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said that pain related to overloaded backpacks is usually temporary. “The extra weight doesn’t cause structural or long-term damage to the spine nor does it cause scoliosis,” he said.

While the verdict is still out on whether or not backpacks cause scoliosis and other spinal disorders, experts do agree that heavy bags create significant back strain, especially for children. While it may take years for schools to acquire the funds needed to replace textbooks with e-books, parents can help lighten the load on their children’s backs by checking the weight of their backpacks, possibly keeping a second set of books at home, avoiding messenger-style bags, and having children wear backpack straps over both shoulders.

Posted by Laura Swift on Jul 13, 2011