Back pain can occur at any age, but it is far less likely to occur in children than in adults: in kids and teens it may be caused by physical strain or as the result of a more serious condition.
One simple, and unfortunately common, cause of pediatric back pain may have an everyday source – a backpack. Kids, and especially teenagers, are complaining more frequently of back pain, and some experts believe it’s the result of overfull backpacks, which can weigh as much as 40% of their body weight. This causes muscles to strain and posture to shift as they try to accommodate the load, and it can compress the discs of the spine; this is especially true for kids who carry their pack over one shoulder. Fortunately, this pain is often short-lived, and can be eased by adjusting shoulder straps so the pack sits snugly and higher up, and carrying some objects in their arms.
Pain that becomes worse with certain movements – a specific stroke while swimming, a certain gymnastic maneuver – may be a sign of a defect or misalignment in the vertebrae, which are often caused by overuse. Doctors are seeing more of these kinds of injuries as children’s sports become more competitive and begin at an earlier age. Rest, sometimes for several weeks, may be necessary.
Trauma can cause injury to the vertebral discs or a fracture in the vertebrae themselves; this is commonly seen in young athletes who twist and land with a great deal of force – gymnasts and skateboarders, for example. If the disc slips out of place or herniates, it causes the spinal nerve to become compressed, which often leads to leg pain as well as back pain.
Discs can also become infected, especially in children under the age of 5; this is called diskitis, and signs include a limp or a reluctance to walk, as well as a stiff spine that makes it difficult to bend the back, which makes them keep it straight while squatting or bending over.
In rare cases, a spinal tumor may be the source of back pain. Symptoms such as changes in balance and coordination, as well as consistent pain that occurs even at rest can indicate a tumor, so see a doctor for further testing.
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