In 2003 the journal Pain published a study confirming that the incidence of back pain increases significantly between ages 13 and 15. A number of factors can cause back pain in teens, much to their surprise. Though we normally think of younger bodies as more resilient, the stress many growing bodies are subjected to today proves too much.
Injuries to the spine, particularly fractures, are a common cause of back pain among teens who participate in competitive sports. There are a different types of fractures the spine can undergo, the most common being spondyolysis, which is a stress fracture. Teens who regularly hyperextend their spines, meaning they bend backward, are especially at risk of spondylolysis; this includes gymnasts and wrestlers. Impact is also a risk factor of spondylolysis, so football players are at risk as well.
The fracture associated with spondylolysis occurs at the back of the vertebra at the section called pars interarticularis. This component helps to stabilize the spine and maintain alignment. When one or both sides of the pars interarticularis experiences a fracture, prompt diagnosis and recuperation is needed to prevent spondylolisthesis, or the misplacement of a vertebra. Spondylolisthesis may lead to spinal nerve compression by the moved vertebra or a nearby spinal disc that has protruded due to vertebral misplacement.
Spondylolysis often manifests as pain that feels like muscle strain. It almost always occurs at the bottom vertebra of the lumbar spine; aching across the lower back, accompanied by muscle spasms felt in the lower back and possibly the back of the leg, are indicators of spondylolysis in people who participate in rigorous physical activity. An X-ray confirms the condition, and a short period of rest with gradual return to activity usually suffices to heal the vertebra. Core exercises to support the spine may be desirable to prevent a recurrence of the condition, and supplementation of vitamin D and calcium may help to speed up the recovery process.
Fractures to the vertebra can occur in other places besides the pars interarticularis. When the main body of a vertebra suffers a fracture called a compression fracture, its height changes. Depending on the cause and location of the fracture, one side of the vertebra may lose height creating a wedge-shaped bone, or both sides may lose height. Wedge-shaped spinal bones distort posture and create uneven pressure on spinal discs. A bone that is shorter all around also changes the mechanics of the spine and the pressure placed on surrounding discs. As discs experience uneven or increased pressure, they may bulge and herniate. This can lead to nerve compression that causes tingling, weakness and pain along the nerve’s pathway.
While these types of fractures are commonly associated with osteoporosis affecting older people, teens who participate in high-impact activities like skateboarding, gymnastics and football can experience them. Direct blows to the back and landing hard from a fall are common causes.
Spinal fractures often signal themselves by sudden and severe pain. Standing and walking are difficult, and lying down may provide some relief. Bending and twisting will be especially painful. If you or a teen you know has these signs, it is important to seek medical attention. One vertebral fracture increases the risk of another one, and if healing is not prompted, a chain reaction can be set off that permanently distorts the spine.
Treatments for spinal fractures are similar to the treatment of spondylolysis. A back brace may be needed to minimize movement of the spine as the bone heals.
It is important for teens to understand that the injuries they acquire when young can lead to chronic back pain as an adult. While they may be tempted to push through the pain so as not to miss games and competitions, a short period of recovery now could mean the difference between health as an adult and disability. There are natural, safe treatments for teen back pain. The faster you deal with the problem, the faster you can return to the activities you love.