An alarmingly 80% of adults will have back problems at some point in their lives. However, in the past this was unheard of in children. Times are now changing, and it is actually common in children too, although to a lesser degree. The rate of back pain in children increases with age. By the age of 15, 20-70% will have reported some back pain.Most back pain is not due to an underlying serious problem, however if your child is under 5 or has a fever, weight loss, night pain, numbness or weakness in the leg or foot, problems with bowel or bladder, then please see a medical professional.
Back pain is more common in girls than boys. It is least likely to be caused by a true injury but to be there for no apparent reason. Sometimes children can start to notice a general back pain, sometimes it’s after inactivity or sport. So why is back pain increasing in our children?
What are the reasons?
There are several hypotheses, which we will discuss below. One or more of these could relate to your child and some changes, and even prevention measures now, could help reduce or avoid pain in the first place.
1 The most common cause of back pain in children and teenagers is muscular strain or overuse. Acute strains usually occur after an incident, whether playing sport or being sedative for too long. They often resolve themselves after a few days of gentle movements. Ice if necessary initially for pain and then heat after 3-5 days to relax the muscles. A chronic muscular strain is when the acute phase didn’t settle as expected. Here your child would need to do more specific strengthening and stretches.
2 Posture plays an important part in anyone’s life, whether it’s your running pattern or how you sit to study. Some children as they grow will have rounded shoulders (the Kevin posture) which is a weakness of core strength and a tightening of certain muscles, so this can be improved rather than ignored.
3 School changes from primary to secondary, not only in the amount of studying that is expected of our children, but they are expected to carry books around with them all day. My children won’t use their lockers as they complain there isn’t enough time between lessons, the fashion is to wear a shoulder strap bag rather than a ruck sack so all the weight which is too heavy is carried unevenly over one shoulder. Children should be adviced to load the minimum weight possible, carry a rucksack across both shoulders and use a locker
4 School furniture can also be an issue. Chairs and tables are all set at a standard height, yet children can vary hugely between height, the smallest person is as badly affected as the largest. The smallest isn’t able to have his bottom back in the chair with his feet on the floor and his shoulders are elevated to reach the table. The larger child has to sit with his knees too high, upper back rounded to write on the table. As adults, when we go into the work place we can have ergonomic workstation assessments and told how to sit, to adjust our chair height etc so why not our children. We are also encouraged as adults to move and stretch or change our position every 20 minutes, but school children will sit for x hour long lessons. Playing computer games, time passes by and they haven’t moved for hours.
5 Sports can be a reason for back pain. Contact sports where injuries can occur, again these are often muscular, but fractures of the spine can occur in teenagers. Certain types of sports can give back pain more than others, for example gymnastics, diving or bowling in cricket. However, with teenagers being over enthusiastic as they play is the most aggravating factor. Teenagers are very competitive and may go into challengers or push themselves harder than some adults as they have no fear. They are also less likely to factor in a recovery period into their weekly schedule.
6 Less active children can also suffer with back pain, if they are not moving about as much, their muscles aren’t getting strengthened and stretched throughout a day. This can develop into the poor postures as mentioned earlier. Also, being in one position for too long can cause spinal stiffness and then pain.
7 Depression can cause back pain and back pain can cause depression. There is a lot of pressure on the youth of today, with schooling, gaming and social networking. Teenagers should be encouraged to do something they like, whether a short break to unwind every afternoon after school or being part of a regular club.
Prevention is better than cure
In many cases back pain is short lived and settles without treatment. Studies have found this happens in about half of all teenagers with back pain. However, prevention is better than cure. Points 1-7 can all be spotted early, and most can be changed by an external factor.
With a little change in lifestyle we can set our children up to having healthy spines for life. Doing some gently stretches if they have a rather sedentary lifestyle, being mindful about lifting, sitting and standing. Try to encourage your children to avoid repeated actions which strain the spine, avoiding over exertion during sports or over reaching for a drink whilst sat in their gaming chair. Encourage a rucksack, used over both shoulders and put things into a locker at school. Try not to nag “stop slouching” every five minutes, as a teenager is bound to rebel against parents advice. Do they need to see a physiotherapist to provide more specific exercises?
If you have any concerns in this area, then please speak to a health care professional.