Art by Ally Armstrong
When nearing the end of summer, back to school commercials run constantly, advertising sales on supplies, the newest fashion trends and the most in-style backpack brands this year.
Shopping for the coolest, most fashionable backpack may seem like quite a task avoiding dull colors, bulkiness and certainly those with wheels. But trading in that posh Lululemon for a sturdier, more practical bag could end up a life saver, despite the lack of style and the abundance of padding and buckles.
Disc herniation, degenerative arthritis, spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease are medical terms among my everyday vocabulary as an 18-year-old college student, who is in fact not studying any sort of science. My day is planned around the consequences of these “common pain-generating pathologies of the spine,” as stated in “Essentials of Pain Medicine (Fourth Edition).”
I can guarantee that a minimum of once daily, someone will overhear me complaining, “My back hurts.”
Why should other students care?
Well, consider the amount of weight in the average student’s backpack.
Studying journalism, I typically require lighter materials than, say, a pre-med or law student. I pack my materials prior to every class, being sure to carry minimal supplies, and yet my backpack still weighs nearly 30 pounds, approximately 30% my weight. This figure is almost double the 15% recommendation for a backpack load to body weight ratio, according to “Backpack-back pain complexity and the need for multifactorial safe weight recommendation” in Applied Ergonomics, Volume 58.
Researchers estimate students’ average backpack weight at nearly 12 to 20 pounds, which is approximately 15% to 30% of an average student’s body weight, according to Independent School Management.
In January, I was diagnosed with a L5/S1 herniated disc protruding on the left S1 nerve root, L5/S1 disc space narrowing with desiccation and stenosis (pinching of the spinal cord) and lumbar facet joint arthrosis (arthritis occurring due to worn down joint cartilage), all caused by a car crash in 2007 that has continued to progress due to the increasing amount of weight placed on my back most days of the week.
I guess you could call me an early bloomer, receiving this diagnosis at 17 years old, which is 27 years prior to the most common age range with this type of injury, according to “Low Back Pain” in “Kelley and Firestein’s Textbook of Rheumatology (Tenth Edition).”
In a 1998 study conducted by the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the National University of Singapore, researchers found that walking with a packload, such as a backpack, increases the amount of force placed upon the L5/S1 joint, according to Clinical Biomechanics.
In addition, backpack loads create a significant change in postural control, which is essential to balance, compared to loads brought on by bodily factors such as pregnancy and obesity, according to “Mimicking obesity and pregnancy by adding load mass elicits minor postural oscillations compared to backpack weight carrying” in Obesity Medicine, Volume 16.
Also alarming is the percentage of undetected spinal injuries, such as my own, due to lack of pain or pain attributed to other body parts from nerve compressions. Twenty seven percent of patients with no symptoms of back injuries showed evidence of herniated discs in an MRI study, according to “Low Back Pain” in “Kelley and Firestein’s Textbook of Rheumatology (Tenth Edition).”
So, what should students do to prevent such injuries?
Make sure to purchase a backpack with a back pad, as well as chest and abdominal clips to greatly reduce the stress of a heavy textbook load. As silly as it might look, I frequently cruise around campus with my overly-supportive hiking backpack pulled up as high as possible with both the chest and abdominal buckles clipped.
Considering Pepperdine’s many hills and stairs, this method frequently comes in handy.
Taking caution when exercising, such as through monitoring impact, wearing proper shoes and stretching, can save money on plenty anti-inflammatory drugs.
Remember that, “Unlike other tissues of the body, there is very little blood supply to the disc, so once a disc is injured, it cannot repair itself, and the discs can start to deteriorate,” according to The Arthritis Foundation.
In short, these irreversible spinal injuries are preventable by taking proper precautions.
Even if it requires a few stares due to looking like a backpacker in the Himalayas on campus, it’s worth saving the copious doctors appointments, medications, procedures and bills.
Email Georgia Zanca: firstname.lastname@example.org