10th October 1999

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Oh so heavy!

By Ayesha R. Rafiq

Carrying heavy loads long periods of time could lead to back problems"Don't forget to take your lunch. Put all the things you need for the project in your bag. Give this to aachchi on the way back home. Put it in your bag or you'll forget it. By the way, take your sports clothes in your bag, I won't have time to come and drop it off after school." This familiar scene is probably enacted in thousands of households around the country every morning before a child leaves for school: the daily ritual of 'packing the school bag'.

But parents may now want to think twice before stuffing their children's bags literally to bursting point, in addition to the child's already heavy load of books. Why? Because, believe it or not, carrying such a heavy load around daily just could result in paralysis.

Stand by any school when the last bell for the day rings and you'll see not a bunch of youngsters happily skipping out of school but children already tired after a whole day in class, struggling to balance their heavy school bags and dragging themselves outside the school gates. The children are often bent forward trying to support the weight of the backpack, or to a side when the bag is balanced on a shoulder.

And this is where the problem may begin. Growing bones need to be able to grow without any hindrance if the child is to attain an average height with an average physiological structure, says orthopaedician Dr. Shanaka Wijesekera. And carrying a heavy weight to and from school almost every day of the week certainly does not help. Especially if the bag is not carried in such a way that the weight is centrally distributed an undue burden may fall on a certain section of the body.

Dr. Wijesekera warns that assuming such an unphysiological posture for a long period of time could lead to stress related symptoms such as aches and pains, postural problems and maybe even actual physical damage.

So why is it that the burden has so noticeably increased over the years? What happened to the time when children in the 1960s and 1970s only carried a small suitcase containing three or four thin exercise books to school and maybe a sandwich for lunch? Is this heavy stuffing of bags some form of bizarre endurance training, like in the army? Or are we smarter than our parents and learning more than they did? Or is the competition so high now that the more a child studies, the better chance he has of grabbing a coveted place in university?

Not necessarily, says the Deputy Principal of a Colombo boys' school. A number of factors have led to this problem escalating over the years. During the 60s and 70s and earlier, teachers were given a Teacher's Handbook, he says, which was a guide for the school year for the teacher, setting out the entire syllabus and eliminating the need to rely heavily on textbooks. But now that the handbook is not issued, teachers depend too much on textbooks. They sometimes ask the children to refer the textbooks on their own, which means that in addition to carrying on average 10 monitors exercise books required for a school day, there may be on average five heavy text books to lug around as well.

"Free education is another factor that has led to this. Sometimes, the children can do without a textbook as long as the teacher has one. But the government just hands out textbooks to the children and so they are asked to study off it as well as any notes the teacher gives. Educationists foresaw this problem long ago, but of course no one took any notice," he said.

Dr. Wijesekera says that carrying such a weight on your back for so long could lead to stress related problems such as aches and pains in the joints which are not symptoms generally associated with young children and which could persist for even years if not checked. While stressing that a similar physical impact from carrying heavy school books has as yet not been proven, the side-effects of carrying weights over a long period of time certainly has, he said.

Bending forward or to a side continually over a long period of time could result in postural scoliosis or postural kyphosis, a condition where the back becomes unnaturally bent to a side or forward respectively, usually out of habit. Dr. Wijesekera said that while they generally find this in adolescents forced into weight training, or in sports training, it is possible that this effect could be felt in children as well. This sort of structural change in the vertebrae could lead to permanent vertebral changes.

Dr. Wijesekera pointed out that a heavy load impressing on a particular area could lead to nerve related injuries, resulting in temporary disability. "These injuries are usually related to nerves of the upper limb. When a continual weight is put upon a limb, it could lead to the nerves stretching, symptoms of which are generally numbness, pain, and such disturbances along the nerve distribution."

Perhaps realising the gravity of the problem, some companies are now manufacturing school bags with wheels, not unlike the bags that businessmen drag behind them in airports. While a bumpy ride is almost certainly guaranteed with our roads the way they are, this may be a viable option.

So next time a child complains of unnatural aches or pains you may want to weigh his or her school bag before rushing to a doctor. And remember they're children, not pack mules.

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