Quality of care plays an important role in the treatment of back and spine pain in children and adolescents.
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Spine and Pain in Children
In the past, back pain was considered uncommon in children and adolescents. However, recent reports suggest that this ailment is becoming more common in children. Also, the rate of children who complain of pains in their back increases with age. By the age of 15 years, 20 to 70 percent of children will report some pains in the spinal area. For most children who complain of this kind of pain, the cause does not stem from an underlying serious problem — especially in children under 5 years.
The most common cause of pain generated from the area of the spine seems to occur from a muscular strain, injury, or overuse. Additionally, true injuries probably cause a lower percentage of pain than overuse. In addition, repetitive running, jumping, conditioning may be more common than acute injuries and a significant number of pediatric and adolescent patients with pain in their back are sedentary and without a known cause of pain. Core muscle imbalance or weakness may contribute to the pain. On the other hand, less common causes include infection, tumor, trauma, or various deformities such as scoliosis (spinal curvature), kyphosis (round back), spondylolysis (defects or broken area of bone), and spondylolisthesis (slipping of one bone on another).
Back pain can occur at any age and at any location along the back or spine. Parents should consult with a pediatric orthopedic physician if your child reports severe or progressively worsening pain that lasts more than several days, or pain associated with other warning signs such as:
- Weight loss
- Night pain or pain at rest
- Trouble walking
- Numbness or decreased feeling in the leg or foot
- Pain that goes down one or both legs
- Bowel or bladder problems
The pediatric physicians at Medical City Children’s Orthopedic and Spine Specialists will start with a history and a physical exam. With back pain, it is important to see a pediatric orthopedic physician who is familiar with treating the spine and the pain eminating from this area in children. They will ask when the pain began if it started with a specific injury or activity, and if it is getting better or worse, where the pain is located, when does it seem worse, and if there are any other associated complaints such as fever, weight loss, pain going down the leg, or bowel or bladder changes.
During the physical examination, one of our pediatric physicians will observe or inspect your child, looking for spinal curves, posture, skin changes, walking ability, and symmetry and will palpate or feel each backbone to try to identify areas of pain. Your child will be asked to bend forward, backward, and to the sides. Our pediatric physician will check reflexes and sensation as well as move your child’s legs up and down looking for signs of pressure on the nerves exiting the spine and will perform tests to assess flexibility, strength, and coordination.
Kyphosis is becoming more common in kids and adolescents
“Postural Kyphosis is a benign condition, but one that needs to be addressed before the curve can progress. This is caused by poor posture that causes the child to sit slumped forward. A lot of children today who are into playing video games or electronics often sit this way. Thankfully, this is something that can be corrected with exercises and by correcting the posture of the child.”
Shyam Kishan, MD
EOS low-dose radiation for X-raying the spine to determine what is causing pain
Muscular strain or overuse (acute or chronic)
This is the most common cause of pain near the spinal column in children and adolescents. Core muscle imbalance or weakness may contribute to the pain. Acute strains usually resolve after a period of rest or activity modification. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (ibuprofen or naproxen) and ice may help relieve acute symptoms by decreasing swelling. After 4-5 days, warm compresses may be preferred as heat may help relax muscles and decrease muscle spasm. A regular program of low impact walking with a goal of 30-45 minutes a day can help increase conditioning as initial pain improves. Hamstring stretching and abdominal strengthening can help relieve persistent pain occurring in the back. Many children and adolescents will benefit from a formal physical therapy program to teach them appropriate exercises.
Round back or kyphosis
This may result in back pains, typically in adolescents. For some, the round back is due to poor posture and can be improved with core exercises. For others, the spine actually contains structural changes that can progress and result in deformity. This condition, known as Scheuermann’s kyphosis, is characterized by a wedge-shaped vertebra that collapses anteriorly and results in a hunched or rounded appearance. Surgery may be indicated in severe cases.
Spondylolysis and Back Pain
This refers to a defect or stress fracture in the posterior spine that can cause low back pain. Activities that require twisting or hyperextension of the back (such as gymnastics, wrestling, diving, football, and hockey) may put increased stress in the low back resulting in trauma to the bone and eventual fracture. Pain is usually worse with back extension rather than bending forward. Tight hamstrings may pull on the pelvis resulting in flattening of the low back or difficulty taking long strides with walking or running. Taking a break from sports and doing exercises focused on hamstring stretching and core strength can help relieve tension in the low back and improve symptoms. A back brace can provide some relief. Surgery is reserved for those cases of severe pain that do not improve with non-operative treatment.
This refers to slipping of one vertebra forward with respect to the vertebra below and occurs most often in the lower, or lumbosacral, spine. Defects in the posterior spine allow for this slippage to occur. As the vertebra slips forward, it can injure spinal nerves. Often children/adolescents can participate in full sports with mild slips if the pain is minimal. If slips are severe or progressive, surgery may be recommended.
This rarely occurs in adolescents, but it is possible during a forceful activity such as weightlifting. Unlike adults, children and adolescents possess growth plates on the ends of their vertebrae. That’s why it is important that children see a pediatric orthopedic physician who knows how to treat growth plates in children when it comes to spinal injuries. When the disk herniates or pushes back, the young disk may pull a fragment of this growing bone with it, and this can cause pressure on the nerves or spinal cord. When this occurs, surgery may be necessary to remove the bone fragment.
Infection and Back Pain
An Infection can affect the vertebral bones or discs of the spine. The infection of the disk space, known as diskitis, tends to affect younger children. In addition to pain, a child with a spine infection may run a fever, low back stiffness, and refusal to walk or bend at the waist. Lab tests, our EOS X-ray machine, and/or MRI are useful in making the diagnosis. Treatment usually involves antibiotics.
Tumors although rare, can occur in the spine of children. Constant or progressively worsening pain, night pain, or pain associated with fever or weight loss should be evaluated by a doctor. Treatment depends on the type of tumor.
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