Back pain – and kids? Yes: They have spines, too. And many factors can cause it, as early as kindergarten. “Forty to 50 percent of patients I see in my practice are kids 14 and under,” says Nicole Bittner, a board-certified chiropractor at Midwest Medical Associates, Inc. in Sterling Heights with nine years experience. For Pain Awareness Month, she sheds light on this lesser-known ailment.
Where’s it coming from?
Often, kids have “nonspecific” back pain. Their physical exam and X-rays are normal, but pain still may occur undocumented. “(It’s) usually in one spot of the spine, but the cause is undetermined,” says Bittner. Kids as young as 5 can suffer.
“With the huge decrease in outdoor activity for kids in the last 30 years, tablets and cellphones are a part of the cause,” she says. “Kids have ‘text neck’ now. The neck is going from a proper position to a 100 percent decrease, causing the pain.”
That’s not all that can cause poor posture and muscle strain. “Kids are carrying heavier backpacks and carrying them improperly,” says Bittner. “And they are playing more intense sports with higher impacts.” The most common age Bittner comes across is 12-13. “Around junior high when they start playing sports.” Culprits include basketball, cheerleading, football, gymnastics, hockey, lacrosse and even horseback riding. In some cases, mood problems such as stress or anxiety are also at play.
Tracing the pain
Back pain starts at the top of the neck and can travel as low as the top of the knee. “Sometimes the spine becomes out of alignment,” Bittner says. “It causes pressure that pinches nerves, and that’s what causes pain.”
Does your child frequently say his legs are falling asleep? “Sometimes lower back pain can go down to the legs. It could be a pinched nerve in their back.” But clues aren’t always visible. “A change in the child’s behavior, no sleep, less eating or irritability could be a sign,” she says. Get a sense of where they might be hurt. “Ask the child to ‘trace’ their pain whether it’s on themselves or a parent.”
Short-term, try to lighten your child’s backpack and enforce they wear both straps. Keyboard training can help too, so kids aren’t looking up and down as often.
For acute lower back pains only – often caused by a specific injury – Bittner recommends ice and rest. But for more serious cases, seek a certified doctor. Physical therapists and certified chiropractors are options, too. “We are experts in muscular pain, treating with functional medicine instead of drugs,” Bittner notes. Whatever you choose, “When coming to an appointment, let the child answer to the physician. Try not to talk for them.” And don’t delay.
“The longer you wait the more soft tissue could be damaged. If you catch the pain as a child, it helps prevent long term problems.”
Illustration by Mary Kinsora