Back pain is increasingly common in the under 18s. In fact it’s twice as common now than it was 16 years ago. What’s changed, does it matter, and – if “yes” – what are we doing about it?
I would argue that there are 2 important reasons back pain is increasing; lack of activity, and poorer posture due to more time on small screens. Generally kids are less active than they were a generation ago. How many walk to and from school (and home for lunch)? I did in Primary school. Physical activity is essential in order to build and maintain muscle endurance (which is very important in the avoidance of back pain).
The vertebrae and discs (and other bits of you) respond to the forces exerted upon them. The spine is even more susceptible to these pressures when it is growing. If you get the forces wrong then the spine grows poorly. The adult human head is about 5kg and makes up approximately 8% of the body’s weight, but in kids it is disproportionately larger, meaning the centre of gravity is much higher in kids. So… if they bend forwards there’s a lot more force exerted on their spines (and the muscles that support them).
I have a friend who’s a spinal paediatric surgeon; he’s seeing teenagers with problems that he never saw 15 years ago – effectively degenerative spines. I used to only see kids with sports/dance type injuries. Now I see kids with pains that have just crept up on them – normally the preserve of adults.
Does it matter?
It does if you love your kids, and don’t want them to suffer needlessly. And if you’re heartless, then just think of yourself – who’s going to look after you in your old age if the future’s workers are incapacitated before they even start?
What are we doing about it?
I know what I’m doing. I’m putting a course together which I hope to deliver into schools to help kids avoid back pain now and as adults. It isn’t going to be easy. The technology genie is out of the bottle; we can’t stop kids using technology (any more than I can stop playing with my iphone!), but we have to find ways of helping them do it more safely and helping them to be more physically active. I’ve all ready had some great advice from Dr Bunhead (aka Tom Pringle) in how to educate kids (if you haven’t seen Tom the “Stunt Scientist” perform at the Science Festival, make sure you do!). And thanks are due to the teachers at Knox Academy and the East Lothian Primary schools, who are allowing me to test content on them – kids will be a much scarier audience!
If you think you – or someone you know – can help (especially teachers, or others working with kids), in preventing a future generation of back pain sufferers, please do get in touch. Maybe you’d like to be part of a test-audience, or maybe your company would like to sponsor the program, or maybe you know someone who could help in some other way… For me – as a parent and a healthcare professional – doing nothing isn’t an option. Please help.