Alarming frequency of back problems among teenagers

The incidence of back pain among teenagers in industrialized countries is increasing and the data is rather alarming. It is known that in children under the age of 12 back problems are a rare occurrence. However, between the ages of 13 and 15 their frequency explodes. A study on 14,400 schoolchildren aged 13 to 15, published in 2003 in the journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain - Pain (103:259-268) - and carried out by the Kovacs Foundation*, showed that 50% of the boys and 70% of the girls had already suffered back pain at some point.

The problem is that teenagers who experience recurrent back pain have a much higher risk of becoming adults with chronic back pain. Many risk factors come into play in the life of the teenager which can:

1/ lead to back pain,
2/ transform the back pain into a chronic or recurrent problem.

The analysis by the Kovacs Foundation of numerous studies worldwide and their own findings show clearly and beyond a doubt that the potential risk factors associated with the onset of back pain in teenagers are:

a. Discomfort in bed - Make sure your child is comfortable in his/her bed.

b. Too little physical activity - Avoid that your child sits all day, this weakens their back muscles thus increasing the risk of back pain.

c. No sport - Children must do sport, they don't need to do it at competitive level but they need to do sport. This strengthens their muscles and keeps them healthy. Of course, some sports are better than others for strengthening the back muscles (such as swimming). However, this is irrelevant, what is important is that children and teenagers lead an active life (as opposed to sitting all day - in the car, at school, at home in front of the TV or the computer) where sport is present, whatever that sport is. This will strongly contribute to preventing back pain in teenagers.

d. Practising sport at competitive level - Let's be clear, practising a sport at competitive level is not a bad thing but, in a teenager, it constitutes a higher risk of back pain (a 23% increase in risk to be specific). Certain muscle groups are developed and trained to the extreme, and this imbalance in development between muscle groups can impair normal back and spine function, with or without spine deformation.

e. Bad postural hygiene - Make sure the furniture your child sits on and at to study at home is the right height (or even better, adjustable in height) and allows him/her to sit correctly. In too many schools, classroom furniture is not adjustable and children/teenagers are forced into potentially very harmful sitting positions.

f. Heavy backpacks - In many countries where lockers are not common in schools, meaning that children and teenagers need to carry all their books to and back from school, it has been established that one-third of schoolchildren carry weight in excess of 35% of their own body weight inside their backpacks when the reasonable maximum recommended by experts is 10%. And this 10% is acceptable if the child or teenager is physically strong and the way to school not excessively long. The backpack on wheels is recommended as a healthy alternative. And, in all cases, backpacks should never be carried on one shoulder only. Also, they should have wide shoulder straps. The backpack itself should be carried as close to the body as possible and the maximum weight positioned in the lower back area, between the hips.

By correcting or eliminating several of the risk factors mentioned above, the chances of a teenager having back pain become very slim. It's that simple. STRONG BACK, ACTIVE LIFE, and PROPER NIGHT REST are the essential ingredients. And teach your teenager to use his or her head when it comes to carrying weight.

Should your teenager complain of back pain, if you think it is serious, of course you should take him/her to see the doctor as quickly as possible. Chances are, however, that the complaint is caused by nothing other than the muscles being slightly overloaded. You should know, that contrary to popular belief, it has been proven that x-rays very rarely help to diagnose a back problem and that spine surgery is indicated in less than 1% of back pain patients. The most important thing above all others which you should absolutely not encourage if your child complains of back pain - say the experts - is the following:

g. Wrong attitude - THIS IS SO IMPORTANT: the idea - the fixation - that avoiding all efforts when one has back pain is helpful IS A GIGANTIC MISTAKE. It is extremely counter-productive and in fact increases the risk of having more - and more often - back pain. A little back pain is often nothing to worry about and will resolve itself quickly when the subject continues to lead a perfectly normal life with no self-imposed restrictions. Likewise, bed rest for back pain is in most cases extremely counter-productive. It only contributes to weaken the back muscles and that can only lead to MORE PAIN. This is the same advice that is given to adults.

As reflexologists, it is important that we are knowledgeable about such issues in order to better treat our patients, in order to best guide our patients to the right professional, in order to avoid giving counter-productive and potentially harmful advice, and in order to reassure our patients and help them identify the risk factors in their lives.

*: "The Kovacs Foundation carries out programs in medical research, health care and the promotion of public health. 142 entities, including research centers, hospitals, universities and other public and private institutions from 14 countries participate in these programs." Back disorders are the priority research field of the Foundation. One of the missions of the Kovacs Foundation is to locate all studies on the subject of back pain published in the world, and to further assess their validity based on their methodological reliability. Click on the following link for more information the Kovacs Foundation. For further medical advice on back pain you can consult the free website of the Kovacs Foundation

This article was written by Florence Cohen - based on the research and findings of back pain experts worldwide compiled by the Kovacs Foundation.

Copyright 2009 Florence Cohen - You may not copy this article without authorization.



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