When a child complains of back pain the first instinct of most adults is to ignore them. After all, with their young, flexible bodies what are the chances that their complaint is viable? However, it is essential that a child’s complaint of back pain – or even simple achiness – not be ignored.
Even if a preliminary x-ray fails to reveal any problem, a child’s complaint of back pain could be very serious. About one third of the time that a child has such a complaint there is a dangerous problem at fault.
Back pain in a child can signify infection, injury, and/or tumorous growth.
What could it mean?
According to Dr. Vesna Martich Kriss, an associate professor of pediatric radiology at the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine, “Back pain is common in adults, and the majority of the time, it’s nothing serious. But when children complain, doctors and parents should be concerned. Even if an initial x-ray doesn’t show anything, parents shouldn’t stop there if pain persists. For instance, sometimes a fracture after a trauma doesn’t show up in an x-ray for a week or two. A second x-ray may be necessary if the child continues to complain, and occasionally, a bone scan may be necessary to get to the root of the problem.”
It is common, Kriss continued, for adolescent athletes to sustain back injuries due to the stress that they put on their immature bones while competing at higher levels. While that is concerning enough, there are other problems that could be indicated by back pain in a child.
Infections such as Osteomyelitis are also indicated by back pain. This is a bone infection that interferes with growth and destroys bone. While this specific infection is rare in healthy children, it is serious and time sensitive in diagnosis. If ignored, this can cause permanent bone loss and damage.
Bone tumors also cause back pain. Much like Osteomyelitis, cancer in general is rare among children, but bone cancers and the tumors produced by these cancers are among the most common types among adolescents. In fact, approximately 900 cases of bone tumors among children are opened every year.
To demonstrate the ability of problems to be missed by simple x-ray alone, a study was performed in the United Kingdom. In the study, children complaining of lower back pain were given x-rays of their back and also a bone scan of the area.
Back lesions were detected in roughly 12 percent of the subjects studied. However, the bone scans found that the number was actually closer to 31 percent. Almost three times as many lesions were found through bone scan than simple x-ray alone.
This alone demonstrates the need to go beyond the findings of simple x-rays when assessing the spine. Children’s spines are much more flexible than those of most adults and thus, back pain is a highly uncommon problem in children.
Symptoms of danger
If your child complains of pain in their back – especially after a sporting or otherwise physical activity – make sure you seek medical attention for them right away. The following symptoms often accompany serious problems that present as back pain:
- Pain that radiates to the legs
- Difficulty walking or abnormal gait
- Severe pain that interferes with sleeping & other activities
- Numbness or weakness in any of the extremities or limbs
- Changes in bathroom habits (loss of control, going more or less, etc.)
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
- Trauma or injury preceding pain
Wrapping It Up
Backache and pain in adults is often the result of age related issues. However, for kids it is often symptomatic of much more severe issues such as spinal tumors, spinal infections, growth abnormalities, and/or serious injury.
It is essential to identify the cause of any back pain in children so that it can be addressed quickly. Early treatment and/or management are important in achieving the best outcome possible. Not treating the problem in a timely matter can often lead to complications and permanent damage. Back pain in children should never be ignored and can indicate a serious underlying condition or disorder. Make sure you advocate for your child until you get a real answer for why they are in pain.