Backpacks Not Blamed for Back Pain

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Adolescent back pain linked to mismatch of school furniture rather than backpack weight

October 1, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

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Teens' back pain could be blamed on the heavy textbooks and homework assignments they carry to school. But there may be something else besides those heavy backpacks that's actually linked to pain and soreness in the back.

A recent study found that shorter desks and other school furniture were tied to back pain among young teenagers. As the distance between desktops and kids' elbows increased, the more likely teens — especially girls — were to have back pain.

Based on the findings of their study, the researchers said that it is important to consider school furniture size, as well as to prevent back pain during childhood, as back pain during the adolescent years is a risk factor for back pain in adulthood.

"Encourage good posture at home and at school."

This study, led by Ana Assunção, MSc, from the Biomechanics and Functional Morphology Laboratory at the Technical University of Lisbon, looked at how school furniture and backpack weight affected back pain among teenagers.

The study included about 140 teens in seventh through ninth grades and who were between 12 and 15 years of age. The school furniture in this study included individual chairs and double desks.

Participating teens answered a questionnaire asking them if they had back pain, how much back pain they had and where that pain was located.

Teens who reported having back pain provided possible reasons for having that back pain. The researchers paid particular attention to the teens who had back pain for at least a week sometime over the previous three months.

Students reported which day of the school week that they carried the most materials in their backpacks and had their bags weighed on that day. The kids also had their level of physical activity measured over the course of a week.

The researchers found back pain in 58 percent of the teens. Girls in particular were more than four times as likely to have back pain than boys.

Considering school furniture, the researchers found that the likelihood that teens had upper back pain increased about 39 percent as the distance between the top of the desks and the height of kids' elbows increased.

Girls were about 2.3 times more likely to have back pain compared to boys as the difference between their desks and elbows increased.

However, as the distance between desks and girls' eye level increased, the risk of having back pain was cut by 45 percent. For boys and girls combined, the risk for back pain was cut by almost 20 percent.

Backpacks, kids' weight and back pain were not linked, according to the researchers.

"This highlights the fact that classroom furniture is typically selected and acquired without any prior concern, which probably results in its inadequacy," the researchers wrote in their report.

The authors noted that their study did not figure out what specifically caused the back pain in kids.

Also, the participating kids might have lost interest in the study, and it's unclear how seriously they answered the initial questionnaire on back pain, which could have affected the results.

According to the researchers, future research should see how back pain is affected by backpack weight and school furniture over the long-term and whether playing sports affects pain levels.

This study was published in the International Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics.

Review Date: 
October 1, 2013
Last Updated:
December 30, 2013