Four out of five adults will experience some type of back pain in the course of their lives. While most adults aren’t surprised by this, back pain in children tends to be more startling. You may already know about back pain in adults, and you may even know some of the common causes, but today we are going to discuss what to do when your child starts exhibiting similar symptoms, and how to navigate the situation.

Causes of Back Pain in Children

While back pain is commonly thought to be an age-specific problem, more recent research has found that it is relatively common in children as well. One of the major differences between back pain in adults and back pain in children is that adults are more likely to have issues caused by sedentary lifestyles, whereas children frequently have pain associated with overuse or injury.

Because many children are active, they are highly susceptible to muscle strains. These occur when muscles or tendons are overstretched, resulting in pain and tears in the tissues involved. While adult back sprains tend to involve the lower lumbar area, children can develop strains in the upper back as well. Muscular back pain is the most common cause of back pain in children, and muscle strains are a big contributor. Symptoms of muscular strain include

  • Pain in the affected joint
  • Muscle spasms
  • Swelling

Less common but still fairly prevalent in children, stress fractures in the spine can also cause back pain in younger patients. These fractures typically occur in children who participate in sports, especially those involving hyperextension of the lower back, such as football, gymnastics, and wrestling.

This repetitive hyperextension can lead to fractures on both sides of the spine, a condition known as spondylolisthesis. Children with such a condition have spinal instability, which can lead to a spinal shift, resulting in back pain. Even in children without spondylolisthesis, stress fractures can manifest in back pain over time.

The least common cause of back pain in children is that which results from a herniated disc. While the symptoms can be similar to that of a back sprain, herniated discs have very different causes. Children typically have more malleable discs, and as such, are less prone to injury than adults. That said, children can still suffer from disc problems, particularly when they sustain impact injuries.

When an adolescent or child herniates a disc, it can put pressure on the nearby nerves, resulting in pain in the lower back and legs. In addition, herniated discs can cause bowel and bladder problems.


As with adults, treating back pain in children requires different approaches depending on the cause. If the child has incurred a muscle sprain, the treatment will involve simple things like rest, ice or heat, and stretching. Strains rarely require any form of surgery and typically resolve on their own.

Should your child be suffering from a stress fracture of the spine, there is a good chance they can make a recovery without surgical intervention as well. Physical therapy and limiting of dangerous activities can be enough in less severe cases, though surgery may be required should this be insufficient to relieve pain.

Disc herniation is the most serious of the causes we have discussed and often does require surgery. That said, this is not always the case, and some patients with herniated discs make full recoveries without invasive treatment. This is best assessed on an individual level, and you should consult your doctor if you suspect your child has sustained this type of injury.

Next Steps

If your child is suffering from back pain, the best course of action is to seek the help of a medical professional. We here at Ortho Spine America have helped countless patients manage and treat their back pain. Dr. Atwater specializes in pediatric spinal conditions and deformities, so reach out and schedule an appointment.  Together we can get your child on the road to a life free of pain.

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