Why We Can't Ignore the Issue of Chronic Back Pain in Children


Back-to-school can bring many feelings for kids. Sadness, fear, joy, anger, stress, curiosity, confusion, tiredness, and for some unlucky kids, pain. Pain in their backs.

I know what you might be thinking, maybe even screaming at me via your screen. “What? Back pain? In kids? Isn’t that only for 90-year-olds and/or people who were weak to begin with? Surely you must be joking or mistaken, because children don’t get back problems!”

Sadly, back issues can be very real for some children, and probably are more common than most people realize. I should know. I am 18 and a half, and I have had chronic, constant back pain for 10 years. It started when I was 8, riding in the car, and the driver next to us decided he was more important than us. He ran the red light, while we followed the rules. The other guy rammed into us, totaling our car. Lucky for me and the parent driving, we had our seat belts on, and the car had locking ones (you know, the kind that might annoy you if you dropped something on the floor, but that you will thank if and when they keep you from kissing the steering wheel, dash, or the seat in front of you.) Also lucky for me, I was in the back. I didn’t have any life-threatening injuries, and neither did the parent, but we did get hurt, both emotionally and physically.

Since then, even more crap has happened to my back, including some things happening to kids’ backs all over our nation, and probably in other countries, too. Things that are either happening or about to happen. You might not even realize these things are affecting your kids or kids you know, just like you might not have realized children can get back pain. You might think your kids have time before the problems caused by these things develop, that these things don’t add up until someone gets old. You might think kids have a choice, and they could just choose not to do these things.

I’m referring to bad chairs, heavy backpacks, and lack of help for children with back issues. It doesn’t always take something as drastic as a car accident to cause back problems. Things that are common and seemingly benign can be harmful to the backs of children. Here is what needs to be done to protect our nation’s children from the agony that is chronic back pain, and to help kids who already have problems with their backs:

1.We need to get out of denial, and bust the myths about back problems. Yes, back pain can happen to children. No, she isn’t making things up when she says her back hurts. No, it isn’t “all in his head” when he is having trouble bending over. Yes, it can happen to your child. Yes, damage and physical stressors can add up, and it doesn’t always take a long time for them to do so. No, back pain is not just for those over a certain age. No, having back problems does not mean one is automatically weak.

2. We need to consider the possibility that a child may have a bad back. Sure, there are kids who are lazy, but there are also kids who have back problems and can’t do things, or they may be able to do things, but those things are hard. If an 8-and-a-half-year-old child you know drops something and then can’t pick it up because of a back spasm, the response to that child’s crying and complaining should not be, “You’re 9, not 90!” I would much rather have heard something along the lines of, “Are you OK? Here, let me rub your back, and then I will pick that up for you.” Or “Gee Meaghan, that must hurt! Mistakes happen, so I am not mad at you for dropping things. Since you can’t pick it up right now, we will work on picking up your stuff later, when you’re feeling better.” When you’re the one standing there, in pain and unable to move, having someone yelling at you is not helpful. Not to mention he got my age wrong.

3. Fund the schools! Schools are very underfunded, so they can’t always afford decent chairs. Chairs that provide back support and don’t force kids to awkwardly crumple themselves up are crucial to preventing back problems as well as treating existing issues. Underfunded schools also rely on students to buy supplies for the whole class, which means more weight dragging down each kid’s tiny back — as though the child’s own supplies weren’t already heavy enough! Underfunding is also linked to lack of support in many departments, including special education, which is a crucial department for the kids worst affected by back problems and can mean the difference between understanding and insensitivity toward kids with back problems in general.

4. About those school supplies… the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says that the weight of a backpack should be 10-15 percent of the weight of a child. If your child weighs 50 pounds, their backpack should weigh 5 to 7 and a half pounds. Unfortunately, many kids are carrying backpacks that are far too heavy. Make sure your child is wearing their backpack using both straps, get the backpack fitted (if possible), and try to get one with a waist strap. This will help ease the burden on your child. Pick out a backpack made specially for children, because the material is not as heavy. Choose one with a lot of different pockets, so as to distribute all that stuff more evenly. If your child is grunting when putting on the backpack, coming home with red marks on their shoulders from their backpack straps,  suddenly slouching or stopping, leaning when carrying their backpack, or complaining about numbness, tingling, and / or pain in the back, neck, shoulders, arms and / or legs, their backpack might be too heavy.

5. And finally, no matter what time of year it is, don’t run red lights, unless you’re driving an emergency vehicle or escaping a super villain. Joking and references to “Big Hero 6” aside, if you’re not in emergency services, stop at the dang stoplight. You’re not that important, and you never know whose back you’ll hurt when you T-bone their car and shake their body like a rattle. There could be an 8-year-old kid in the backseat, just singing along to music, and you could hurt that kid if you don’t follow the rules.

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Thinkstock photo by Creatas.

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