I just returned from my yearly medical mission in Honduras. And I thought I had gotten away with it- no missed flights, no lost equipment, no bad stomach bugs for the team. But the next morning I sat down at work and YOW- my lower back clenched up! This happens every couple of years for me, particularly when I have been abusing my back. All week in Honduras I was hauling duffels, riding rocky mountain roads in old pick-up trucks, hunching over hundreds of patients. The next few days I walked like a crippled cowboy until things loosened up.
Every week at home I see a kid with back pain too; it’s not just for old guys like me. Sometimes it’s a dramatic injury, like the weight-lifter whose back went POP! after dead-lifting 315 lbs, or the cheerleader who fell off the pyramid onto her tailbone. Sometimes it’s a dancer who only strains a muscle but keeps on dancing, aggravating the injury further.
Teenagers also abuse their backs outside of sports. They slouch. They slouch in school chairs. They slouch in the car. They slouch all day on the couch at home. Then they go back to school and haul a dump-truck load of books in their school bags.
When a teen’s back begins to hurt, sometimes they complain, sometimes not. They blow it off and continue to strain their spines, or continue their sports. They may take an ibuprofen or two. Maybe the ibuprofen works, maybe not, because they only use it sporadically, and they keep on slouching and playing. Eventually they tell somebody and get brought in.
So how to ease that angry back? For me, it was two ibuprofens around the clock, and my return to Red’s gym was delayed a week. At work I sat upright in my ergonomic chair, and slept with a pillow under my knees. And these things are the keys to easing your teen’s back pain too.
Like we detailed above, teens will continue to abuse their backs despite the pain. Many kids (adults too) do not put two-and-two together when it comes to caring for their spines, or any other joints for that matter. Their backs hurt, but they still slouch. Their knees hurt, but they still play basketball or soccer. They play hurt, and sit hurt too.
Thus is the first clue to taking care of a sore back- stop abusing it! Take the strain off by sitting upright with feet flat on the floor, thighs flat on the chair, spine tucked against the chair back. If the chair does not have a lower back, or “lumbar,” support, use a pillow to put a slight arch in your back. When in bed take strain off your back by sleeping with flexed knees. That means putting a pillow under your knees when on your back, and a pillow between your knees when lying on your side. Standing strains the back too, but you can ease it by putting one foot up on a step.
And for goodness’ sake take a break from sports! I’m all for sports and exercise in kids, but if you’ve hurt something, you’ve got to let it heal. That means no basketball, P.E., dance, or running. When professional athletes get hurt, do they keep playing? No, they go on the Disabled List and start therapy. No pros want to kill the golden goose, which is their million-dollar athletic ability.
Pain medicine helps. Ibuprofen or tylenol can take the edge off back pain, as long as you take enough and start caring for your back. You can ice your back too, just like you’d ice any injured joint. An ice pack against your lower spine, ten minutes at a time, three times daily, can ease pain and inflammation.
If rest, medicine, and ice don’t make things better, see your doctor. Some kids who have been abusing their backs for a long time need physical therapy. Sometimes they need tests to be sure that their pain is not from something else besides muscle strain. But often, kids just need to sit up straight. You may only be 16, but take care of your back so that it takes care of you.