Back pain and children
If the topic weren’t so serious, you could almost joke about it. For instance, you could say that today’s youth is not satisfied with underage drinking and smoking—it wants back pain prematurely, too. Such jokes turn sour after a glance at the statistics of back pain among children. The Robert Koch Institute conducted a study of 17 000 11 to 17 year olds; the study suggests that back pain is the third biggest cause of illness among children. It is preceded only by head- and stomachaches. Although there are many factors at play, the main cause of astounding rate of back pain is clear. Children spend too much of their day sitting down and no longer get enough exercise.
Mum, my back hurts!
The increased rate of back pain is accompanied by another interesting finding. In a comprehensive study by the German health insurance provider, DAK, and the Forsa Institute, teachers reported that the last ten years have seen an increase of motor control deficits among students. 70 percent of teachers reported that students experienced a general increase in health problems over the last decade. Stress and psychosomatic illness are increasing. The causes can be seen in obvious places. Take a look at the empty playground in your hometown and the sports fields that was once full of life. Children who spent the whole afternoon at the football field, on a BMX track or at the skate park have become rare. There are few children who play hide and seek in the woods or on the street or who can be seen drawing hopscotch lines in the laneway. Children are still active outside, but they go out later and arrive home sooner than they used to.
A sedentary childhood: a look at the causes
One significant change is that high school students no longer spend as much time on the playground. After a 2013 reform to the German high school system, school timetables can include up to 36 contact hours per week (as opposed to the previous limit of 30 hours). Add homework and private tuition to hours spent in the classroom, and it is obvious that German students no longer have enough time for exercise and recreation. This trend is matched by other European countries. Even tertiary education institutions have set more time-intensive courses. Compressed bachelor and masters degrees enable students to finish one or two years earlier than before; however, students must spend significantly longer hours in the lecture theatre and at their desks than in the past.
In primary school years, the childhood impulse for activity leads children to exercise after school. This drive decreases in high school. At 14 or 15 years of age, football training may still be popular among boys and dancing among girls. However, all forms of exercise stand under a serious challenge from gaming consoles, social networks and the TV. An increasing number of families need a second breadwinner to survive. Many working parents not at home enough to regulate the unhealthy habits of their children.
As a result, doctors and health insurance companies have noted a marked increase in the rate of obesity, diabetes, joint pain and high blood pressure.
Promoting movement: How to (easily) combat back pain
Health professionals are not the only ones to notice this trend. The German organisation for back health, ‘Aktion Gesunder Rücken’ (Action for Healthy Backs) also notes that our modern lifestyle is the cause for the increasing rate of back problems among children. According to new studies, almost half of primary school students have suffered from back pain. According to a recent Action for Healthy Backs press report, a startling 80 percent of adolescents suffers from back pain. Action for Healthy Backs, which has been working to prevent and cure the back pain epidemic for 20 years, also suggests ways to treat the growing problem.
Experts agree that the prevention and the cure of back pain each depend on two factors: sufficient exercise and the right office furniture. The CEO of the German Worker’s Union for the Promotion of Posture and Movement, Dr Dieter Breithecker, recommends that children spend at least three hours a day in motion. Children normally have a drive for exercise and want to joke around, run and play. Breithecker recommends for parents to encourage children to play sport. Playing a variety of sports that engage large muscle groups is better than early specialisation in one sport. The activation of various muscle groups sends signals to the brain to stimulate bodily and mental development.
Surprisingly, parents underestimate the importance of ergonomics when buying office furniture for their children. An office chair that can be adjusted to the user’s personal needs is just as important for children as for adults. The Action for Healthy Backs has developed a comprehensive catalogue of criteria for children’s furniture. Each product must fulfil these requirements to be considered ergonomic; products that that meet the criteria receive the organisation’s seal of approval. Office chairs in particular should be height adjustable, have an inclinable seat and backrest and be fitted with sufficient padding. Chairs that can be adjusted in all three directions (up-down, side to side, front-back) are considered ‘three-dimensional’. These are particularly ergonomic because they allow children to adopt different postures while seated. An ergonomic office chair is comfortable and thus improves your child’s ability to concentrate on tasks.
After you have found an appropriate chair for your child, you will need a height-adjustable table. Action for Healthy Backs requires that table tops must be at least 16 degrees adjustable. The reason for this is that a flat, fixed table top makes you liable to a sore neck. Considering that schools and universities do not hold themselves to ergonomic standards, it is essential that children and adolescents have ergonomic furniture at home. According to the experts, it would be ideal for schools to give students the option of alternating between sitting and standing in class to foster a more dynamic—and more ergonomic—learning environment.
Exercises that promote a healthy back
Any kind of movement is good for children and adults alike. Try to avoid computer games as much as possible. Instead of launching tennis balls via a Wii-console or chasing enemies through a virtual reality, your child should be active for at least a few hours every day. Children playing computer games have a tendency to slump in their chair, which puts uneven pressure on the spinal discs. This posture also avoids the activation of the back musculature; it results in a weakened back that is more likely to tire quickly. Like all muscles that are not used enough, the muscle groups in the back will atrophy. Regular exercise that engages the main muscle groups of the body, such as swimming, athletics, cycling and climbing, are the best way to fight back pain. By playing sport on a regular basis, your children will also be protecting themselves against a problem that is associated with a loss of wellbeing and an increase in back problems: obesity.
Young people have a significantly easier time building muscle and losing weight than older generations. They should recognise that back pain is a serious problem in European countries, and accordingly, be proactive in preventing it. Their mission should be to make back pain the prerogative of older generations—like it was in the past.