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Kids Versus the Backpack

Kids Versus the Backpack

When we think about back pain, we often don’t think about kids. As kids are quite flexible and recover from any discomfort easily, it’s rare to find any serious back pain conditions that will require the help of a spine doctor. However, that’s quickly changing over the last several decades. The way that kids and teens experience back pain, tends to be acute and short-lived, but more and more cases of kids with back pain are emerging. And it’s a scary trend. Here, you’ll find out exactly what’s going on with the backs of our youth, when it’s necessary to seek medical attention, and what you can do to help your child with their pain concerns.

Backpacks Causing Pain

If you’ve ever gone backpacking, you probably already know the 30 percent rule. You never want to backpack with your pack weighing more than 30 percent of your body weight. However, students these days are being faced with a terrible decision: wear an overly heavy backpack or attend classes unprepared. With the sheer amount of textbooks students need, it’s hard to keep a backpack at a reasonable weight. Children can often carry backpacks with textbooks up to 40 percent of their body weight or more. This problem is causing increasing back pain in our youth with no many solutions to alleviate it. In addition to this terrible back strain, many students will wear their backpacks unevenly or poorly packed, causing more stress from the uneven load on the spine.

Here’s the catch, while this is causing pain for many children and more and more young adults are seeing specialists for back pain, much of the problem is simply soft tissue damage. Heavy backpacks easily lead to muscle strain and other problems that do hurt. But they aren’t problems that merit action such as surgery. The typical course of action is a change of habits such as a lighter backpack, rest, ice, and potentially, even physical therapy. Other than that, there isn’t much to be done.

However, there are many other signs of back pain that are more than just muscle strain in children that can even be life-threatening. So it’s worth understanding how your child is doing, and what is actually causing their pain.

What to Expect in Young Children

Kids get hurt regularly, but with young children, you can expect them to bounce back from most pain pretty quickly. Young children simply don’t have the same stress and strain on their backs as older children, so when they do hurt, it’s typically minor soft tissue damage. Young children are also pretty good at slowing down when they hurt enough to let themselves heal. However, if you have a young child and they seem to have persistent back pain, then it’s time to see a doctor.

What to Expect in Older Children and Teens

Older children and teens are trickier to diagnose with persistent back issues because of the likelihood of regularly reinjuring themselves from a lack of self limiting. Many teens, when they hurt themselves, will not take the time for the adequate rest needed to heal. They throw themselves back into sports or other activities too soon, and can quickly reinjure themselves again and again. The one thing that can be said about this age range is that many of the life-threatening issues that can cause back pain in younger children are exceptionally rare in teens. The odds are almost always on a sports or overuse back injury.

Conditions That are of Concern

While there aren’t many conditions that can cause severe back pain in children, there are a few that can be life threatening and need to be addressed by a doctor promptly. Any persistent pain should always be evaluated by a doctor to rule out any severe concerns.


Scoliosis is exceptionally common to some degree in growing teens, and while not life threatening, it can cause some problems down the line. Scoliosis is the curvature of the spine. It means that the spine could curve more than expected forward and backward, or from side to side. This can be from the bones growing faster than the rest of the body or due to genetic factors. Whatever the cause, it’s important to get any curvature evaluated in case a treatment plan is needed.

Disc Injuries

Disc injuries are not common in children and teens, though they can happen. Teens who work themselves too hard, weightlift, or participate in contact sports are more susceptible to disc injuries. Any signs of one is an immediate trigger to seek medical attention, because even treated, there can be lifelong problems associated with a disc injury.

Vertebral Fractures

You won’t see kids randomly show up with vertebral fractures, but teens who play contact sports or kids who suffer a direct impact to the back may have just this problem. While rest can be the most common treatment, especially of minor vertebral fractures, these need to be evaluated to make sure that surgery is not necessary to maintain stability in the vertebrae.


Tumors are one of the most problematic and life threatening issues that can cause back pain in young children. These are exceptionally rare, but they can happen. If your child has persistent back pain, a doctor will examine your child’s history and look thoroughly at imagery before concluding on a tumor diagnosis.


More common in young children is an infection of the spine. This can cause pain and a handful of other symptoms, but they can also cause imagery for back pain complaints to come back negative. Typically lab tests are required to make a definite diagnosis of infection, as both viral and bacterial are possible. Viral is treated with rest, as there are few antiviral medications, and bacterial would be treated with aggressive antibiotics.

When it comes to kids and pain, it’s hard not to act in order to take all their pain away. And with ever increasing rates of back strain, back pain is becoming all the more common. Know what needs a specialist’s help and what just needs rest when it comes to kids and back pain. And if you or your child need a specialist’s help, turn to the Spine Institute of North America. Call today!

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