Lynne Cantwell, Clinical Director and physiotherapist, shares tips on how parents can prevent their children getting long-term back damage
It’s usually adults who we treat for back pain, however we have seen a worrying amount of children and teenagers complaining of back pain recently. In fact, when we looked into this further we found that the prevalence of back pain in the under 18s age group has increased across the UK over the years. As we are treating these young people we realised that the pain is often caused by particular muscular imbalances that evolve from sitting still for long periods of time or having bad habits when doing day- to day activities. This is good news, as bad habits can be changed and children can be exercised!
What are these bad habits which are causing all the problems?
A few examples include carrying heavy school bags or using a technological device which load the spine and in turn cause back pain. This is because carrying heavy school bags over one shoulder blocks one side of your back (the carrying side), which produces unequal arm swing and causes your lower back to twist more to the opposite side and head to tilt to the same side. This causes the spine to adopt unusual loaded postures that are undesirable for a developing spine and may increase risk of back pain.
Furthermore, back pain can stem from children continuously adopting a bad posture whilst sitting for long periods of time. The overuse of devices such as tablets and consoles result in children sitting in one position for long periods of time often with hunched shoulders and poor posture. As one in four children under the age of 16 in the UK have a tablet and one in five have smartphones, this is likely to be high on the list of causations for this increased trend in young back pain. Repeated postures and prolonged time in any one position can cause excessive strain on the respective spinal structures which can cause pain.
So what can you do?
Firstly, it’s important to understand that teenage and children’s spines differ from adult spines in many ways. Fundamentally, a developing spine is more flexible and unable to take as much load as an adult spine until it is fully formed. It is easy to pass off children’s back pain as a ‘niggle’ and ‘part of growing up’, however stiffness and tight sensations in the back are not normal and could indicate the muscles are working too hard to support the back and something within the spine might be under too much pressure.
Children and teenagers should keep the weight of their rucksacks to a minimum by using lockers or desks at school to store their belongings, and pull the rucksack straps tight to avoid head lean. It is also really important that children and teenagers change their position regularly when using devices and limit the amount of time they spend on them in one sitting. Stretching the upper back and improving stability of the lower back also alleviates the strain on the spine.
So my advice would be to encourage your child to exercise daily as this will improve their core strength and reduce the muscular imbalance of sedentary activities. If all else fails, try to persuade your child to switch between desktop and mobile device as this will change their posture and vary the muscles and therefore reduce repetitive strain. On the other hand, if your child is already experiencing back pain we recommend seeing a physiotherapist who will investigate the cause of the pain, whether it’s muscular imbalance or another problem, and provide rehabilitation exercises to prevent long term pain and damage.
Lynne Cantwell specialises in spinal problems at Six Physio.