Child Orthopedics

Frequently Asked Questions

The PTA at our elementary school sent out a flyer looking for volunteers to participate in a study. They are measuring the effects on kids' spines from wearing heavy backpacks. I am very concerned about this problem and would like to sign our two boys (ages 8 and 10) up. But it involves taking more than one MRI. How safe is that?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) do not use any form of radiation. This imaging device is a perfect tool for measuring the effect of heavy loads on the spine without exposing children to radiation. And, in fact, the new standing MRI devices have already been used by one group of researchers from the University of California (San Diego) for just this purpose. They used standing magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) to measure the physical effects on children's spines from wearing backpacks of differing weights. Boys and girls between the ages of nine and 14 were loaded down with 12, 22, and 32 pound backpack loads. That's about 10, 20, and 30 per cent of their body weight. MRIs were taken with each of these weights. Two MRI measurements were made: disc height and spine curvature. The researchers were expecting to see narrowing of the lumbar discs as a sign that the vertebral bodies were compressed under increasing loads. And that's exactly what they saw. They also saw lumbar asymmetry (curvature of the spine in the low back region). And when they had the children report and rate their level of back pain, there was a significant increase in low back pain linked with wearing these heavy loads. This is the first study using radiographic imaging to provide solid evidence that high contact pressures from heavy backpacks leads to back pain and abnormal compressive forces on the spine. There's a need now to repeat this study as well as expand on data collected over time to identify the full extent of the problem. Before signing your children up, get a copy of the study design and read over the paperwork that describes any potential harm that might come to study participants. If you are satisfied that it looks safe but still have questions, you can talk with the PTA representative who is sending out the flyers and get more information. As parents we do have a responsibility to protect and safeguard our children. That's what the study is all about too -- protecting children from the effects of carrying heavy loads day after day. Good luck!

Timothy B. Neuschwander, MD, et al. The Effect of Backpacks on the Lumbar Spine in Children. Spine. January 2010. Vol. 35. No. 1. Pp. 83-88.

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