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Back Pain in Children

As adults, most people experience back pain at some point. However, back pain in children and adolescents is also quite common, affecting more than 50 percent of school-age children. It can be caused by a variety of conditions, many of which are easily treatable. If your child is experiencing unusual or severe back pain, the pediatric orthopedic specialists at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s have expertise in diagnosing and treating a variety of conditions that cause back pain.

Conditions That Cause Back Pain

Some of the potential causes of back pain in children include:

  • Muscle weakness and posture issues
  • Growing pains, which can typically be associated with growth spurts
  • Injuries such as muscle and ligament strains, overuse injuries and lack of conditioning
  • Spondylolysis: Stress fractures in the spine, most often occurring in adolescence
  • Spondylolisthesis, or spinal "slip," which can lead to the vertebral column alignment to shift out of alignment at one level
  • Herniated disc, symptoms of which may include leg pain, numbness or tingling in the legs, weakness of the lower extremities, and difficulty bending or straightening the spine
  • Infections in the spine
  • Alignment issues, such as scoliosis and kyphosis; more severe forms of these conditions may cause back pain, though back pain is not necessarily associated with milder cases
  • Spinal tumors, both benign and malignant (cancerous), are a rare cause of back pain in children

Diagnosing Causes of Back Pain

If back pain starts to affect your child’s daily life, interfering with things such as sleep, school and other activities, it may be time to visit a pediatric orthopedic specialist. When our orthopedic surgeons see children with back pain, they will typically begin with a physical exam and ask questions about the symptoms the child is experiencing. Topics they will cover may include severity of the back pain, location of the pain, how long it has been occurring, and recent activities that may have triggered it.

Your child’s doctor will examine the spine and check things such as range of motion in the back, reflexes, muscle strength, spasms and tightness, coordination, balance and walking patterns, among others. The next step in diagnosing causes of back pain may include imaging tests such as X-rays. If further work up is needed, other tests that may be ordered include computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or a bone scan. Blood and lab tests may also help detect the presence of inflammation or infection. These tests may rule out certain conditions as well as more accurately pinpoint what may be causing the pain. This will help your child’s doctor determine the best course of treatment.

Treating Back Pain in Children

Many conditions that cause back pain in children and adolescents can be treated without surgery. Most back pain is relatively minor and will be able to resolve on its own in time, with the assistance of stretching, rest, anti-inflammatory medications, and other conservative therapies. At-home exercises, physical therapy and pain management techniques may also be recommended if the pain is persistent. Occasionally, the treatment may include a brace, especially if a stress fracture is identified. If an infection is diagnosed, a course of antibiotics may treat the infection and the pain. In the rare case of a tumor, treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy and surgery may be recommended, depending on tumor type and location.