Back Pain in Children - Symptoms and Causes

Which children are prone to back pain?

Back pain in children is becoming more common. It affects girls more than boys. However, it isn't seen as often in children as in adults. About 30 in 100 children and young people experience back pain, but very few go to see their doctor.

What are the symptoms of back pain in children?

Back pain is felt as a discomfort in the back.

  • It can be a short fleeting pain or a pain that lasts for a long time.
  • It can be mild or severe. It can stay in the centre of the back or travel (radiate) to other areas such as the arms or legs.
  • It can sometimes keep your child awake at night. This can affect their performance at school.
  • The back pain can make them feel miserable.
  • The back pain may affect your child's ability to play games or do PE.
  • You can sometimes identify activities that make the pain worse, such as lifting and carrying, or make it better, such as rest. Sometimes the pain level changes for no obvious reason.
  • You or your child may notice other symptoms, such as a high temperature (fever), weakness, numbness, pins and needles, or problems with their bowels or waterworks.
  • It can affect the way they walk, bend and move.
  • You might find a tender spot in the middle of their back.
  • You may also notice that their back starts to look twisted or curved.

What are the causes of back pain in children?

It used to be thought that back pain in children often had a serious cause. However, it is now realised that many children and teenagers have back pain without there being any underlying worrying condition. One study showed that no cause for back pain could be found in 78 out of 100 children, despite them having lots of tests. This doesn't mean that serious causes should be forgotten and it's important to strike a balance between looking for serious conditions and subjecting children to unnecessary and sometimes unpleasant tests.

Older children

  • Strain of the muscles or ligaments of the spine due to a repeated movement (for example, sports, dancing).
  • A slipped disc, Scheuermann's disease (a condition in which uneven growth of the small bones (vertebrae) making up the spine causes curvature of the spine).
  • Vertebral fractures.
  • Spondylolysis (wear and tear in the spine, commonly seen in sporty teenagers).
  • Spondylolisthesis (slippage of a vertebra frontwards or backwards, often a complication of spondylolysis).
  • Ankylosing spondylitis.

Younger children and older children

  • Infection - usually in those aged under 10 years:
    • Discitis - infection of a disc.
    • Osteomyelitis.
    • Pyelonephritis.
    • Retroperitoneal infection - infection underneath the peritoneum, the membrane lining the abdominal cavity.
  • Rarely, tumours of the bone or spinal cord.
  • Congenital disorders - conditions your child is born with (for example, scoliosis).
  • Diseases affecting the whole body - for example, sickle cell disease

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  • Taxter AJ, Chauvin NA, Weiss PF; Diagnosis and treatment of low back pain in the pediatric population. Phys Sportsmed. 2014 Feb 42(1):94-104. doi: 10.3810/psm.2014.02.2052.
  • Ramirez N, Flynn JM, Hill BW, et al; Evaluation of a systematic approach to pediatric back pain: the utility of magnetic resonance imaging. J Pediatr Orthop. 2015 Jan 35(1):28-32. doi: 10.1097/BPO.0000000000000190.
  • Spiteri K, Busuttil ML, Aquilina S, et al; Schoolbags and back pain in children between 8 and 13 years: a national study. Br J Pain. 2017 May 11(2):81-86. doi: 10.1177/2049463717695144. Epub 2017 Feb 1.
Author:
Dr Laurence Knott
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
29433 (v1)
Last Checked:
16 June 2017
Next Review:
25 June 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.