July 14, 2005

Weighted backpack device helps reduce fall risk

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Elderly women with curved
spines may be able to improve their balance and lower their
risk of falls by using a weighted support device for their
backs and participating in an exercise program, according to
new study findings.

The women studied had osteoporosis-related curvature of the
spine, or kyphotic posture, which causes strain on the spinal
cord, can cause back pain, and may increase the risk of falls.
Previous studies have shown that the use of a weighted backpack
can increase a person's perception of his or her spinal

In the current study, Dr. Mehrsheed Sinaki, of the Mayo
Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, and
colleagues investigated whether such a device may also reduce
the risk of falls among at risk elderly women.

"Most studies of falls address the effects of sedatives,
weakness of the lower extremity muscles and neuromuscular
diseases," Sinaki said in a Mayo Clinic statement. "What we
wanted to see in this study was the effects of intervention to
shift the center of gravity, and improve back strength and

During the first stage of the study, the researchers found
that the 12 women with curved spines were more likely to fall,
had less muscle strength and had worse balance than did a
comparison group of 13 healthy women, they report in this
month's issue of the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The researchers then assigned the study participants with
curved spines to a four-week program in which they performed
exercises to improve their balance, while wearing a fitted
harness with a suspended weight, to help them better center
their own weight over their legs. The weight on their backs was
to counter the frontal weight of their torso. The women were
instructed to wear the harness, essentially a weighted
backpack, for 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the

At the end of the four weeks, the researchers write, "the
positive results of this intervention were surprising to us."

The women showed improvement in their balance as well as
their height, the report indicates. Their risk of falling
decreased, their back strength improved, and they reported
experiencing less back pain than they had at the start of the

Further, although the women did not experience improvement
in the strength of their lower extremity muscles, they were
able to walk faster, and otherwise exhibited improved gait,
which the investigators attributed to their "improved balance
and spinal posture."

"If mobility can be increased by improving balance, we can
more successfully improve strength and general health," Sinaki
and her team write.

In a commentary, Dr. Allan F. Tencer, of Harborview Medical
Center in Seattle, Washington, writes that the improvements
seen in Sinaki's study "have implications for reducing the
incidence of falls" among elderly women with curved spines and
preventing the "downstream potentially life-altering
consequences of falling."

SOURCE: Mayo Clinic Proceedings, July 2005.