Causes of Back Pain in Adolescents vs. Adults

Though the majority of spinal problems appear between the ages of 35 and 55, wrought by natural processes associated with aging, you don’t have to be an adult to have back problems. Back pain can also affect adolescents and even children.

As many as half of all young people will experience back pain by age 20. It may appear as a sharp, shooting pain, or as a burning or aching. It may be felt anywhere in the back. These are the same symptoms adults experience, but the causes of adolescent back pain are usually different than those that afflict their elders.

Table of Contents

  • Is Back Pain Normal for Adults?
  • What Are the Red Flags for Back Pain?
  • What Causes Back Pain in Adolescence?
  • Is Back Pain Normal During Puberty?
  • When Should I Be Worried About My Child’s Back Pain?
  • Will My Child’s Back Pain Go Away On Its Own?
  • How Do You Get Rid of Back Pain for Adults?
  • Spinal Fusion For Back Pain in Adolescents and Adults
  • Continue reading to learn more about the differences between the causes of back pain in adolescents and adults. 

    Is Back Pain Normal for Adults?

    Back pain is normal for adults because it’s an extremely common medical condition. An estimated 80% of adults experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. 

    But, why exactly has back pain become normal for adults? There is no singular answer to this question, but medical experts believe that the growing prevalence of back pain is due to factors including:

    • A lack of physical fitness
    • Occupational risk factors, including sitting in an uncomfortable office chair, sitting for hours without breaks during the work day, and performing jobs that require heavy lifting
    • High stress levels
    • Poor sleep quality
    • Anxiety, depression, and other mental health factors
    • Genetic factors, such as a family history of lumbar disc disease

    What Are the Red Flags for Back Pain?

    The red flags for back pain that indicate the potential for serious complications include:

    • Fever
    • Weakness, numbness, or pain in the leg muscles
    • Lost sensation in the inner thighs and buttocks (saddle anesthesia)
    • Weight loss that can’t be attributed to other factors
    • Recent surgery, illness, or a history of cancer
    • Incontinence 

    If you experience back pain with any of the symptoms listed above, seek out urgent medical care. Possible causes of these symptoms, such as cauda equina syndrome, require immediate treatment to prevent permanent complications. 

    What Causes Back Pain in Adolescence?

    Back pain in adolescence is most often caused by sprains, strains, scoliosis, herniated disc, and spondylolysis (vertebral stress fracture).

    Benign musculoskeletal diseases and trauma are responsible for most cases of back pain in adolescents, just as they are for adults. Any strenuous or straining activity – sports or play, carrying a heavy backpack, or falling – can sprain muscles in the back and cause pain. Such strains and trauma account for many of the younger patients seen in hospital emergency rooms suffering from back pain.

    Less commonly, back pain in adolescence can be caused by spinal infections, kidney infections, or spinal tumors. 

    Is Back Pain Normal During Puberty?

    Back pain is normal during puberty, to a degree. Growth spurts during puberty can cause muscular imbalances as the muscles and ligaments struggle to keep up with the growing bone. 

    Clinical research published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders focused on puberty-related back pain in young girls. This research identified a “highly significant trend” for worsened back pain with increasing levels of puberty until teens reach maturity. Lower back pain, in particular, was linked to puberty, while mid-back and neck pain didn’t seem to correlate with the pubertal stage. 

    When Should I Be Worried About My Child’s Back Pain?

    You should worry about your child’s back pain if it lasts for longer than several weeks, occurs constantly, keeps them awake at night, or is accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever or neurological symptoms. If your child is exhibiting back pain with these symptoms, seek out prompt medical care for a diagnosis and treatment

    Will My Child’s Back Pain Go Away On Its Own?

    Fortunately, most cases of adolescent back pain resolve on their own. The exact cause of back pain is never identified in at least half the adolescents seeking treatment. However, adolescents can exhibit severe spinal conditions capable of causing long-term problems. 

    These include stress fracture of the spine, known as spondylolysis, spondylolisthesis, which is forward slippage of one vertebra on another, and lumbar disc herniations. Infections, inflammatory diseases, and tumors can also cause back pain in children and adolescents, as can other congenital or acquired conditions. However, most cases of back pain in children are caused by muscle strains and generally resolve within a few weeks. 

    If your child is experiencing significant, persistent back pain, don’t hesitate to seek out professional medical care. 

    How Do You Get Rid of Back Pain for Adults?

    To get rid of back pain for adults, start by improving your posture, focusing on your sleep quality, and managing inflammation with ice and heat therapy. Over-the-counter medications, like NSAIDs, can also help reduce back pain and swelling. 

    When at-home methods fail to relieve back pain, it’s time to see a medical professional. Your doctor can work to pinpoint the cause of your pain and, if appropriate, refer you to a spinal specialist. 

    Your physician and/or spinal specialist may recommend:

    • Physical therapy

    Physical therapy focuses on strengthening muscles that can lessen the impact on the spine. Physical therapists can also implement other treatments for back pain, including massage, electrical stimulation, and ultrasound.

    • Lifestyle adjustments

    Physical therapy is often the most effective for back pain when it’s paired with lifestyle adjustments. Your physician can recommend the changes that will be the most effective for your diagnosis, which may include:

    • Quitting smoking
    • Managing stress levels
    • Reaching an optimal weight
    • Avoiding high-impact activities, such as running and contact sports
    • Engaging in regular, low-impact exercise to retain mobility and strength
    • Eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet
    • Altering your sleeping position to reduce strain on the spine
    • Practicing proper posture
    • Investing in a high-quality desk chair with lumbar support
    • Prescription medications 

    Certain prescription medications can help with back pain, including muscle relaxants, antidepressants, and prescription-strength NSAIDs.  

    • Steroid injections

    Steroid medication can be injected directly into the site of your back pain to suppress inflammation and provide fast pain relief. However, physicians advise that patients undergo no more than three to four steroid injections per year to avoid tissue damage. 

    • Surgery

    When non-surgical methods don’t improve back pain after several months, physicians may recommend surgery. This is typically used as a last resort when back pain starts to disrupt the patient’s normal activities. 

    Spinal decompression surgery can alleviate back pain, neurological symptoms, and restricted mobility from conditions like spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, and herniated disc. During this procedure, the surgeon removes the tissue that’s impinging on the spinal nerves, providing the space that it needs to heal and recover. 

    Spinal Fusion For Back Pain in Adolescents and Adults

    To eliminate the possibility of spinal instability after decompression surgery, many surgeons perform spinal fusion. It involves placing bone graft material between the affected vertebrae to spur bone fusion, eliminating all motion at the spinal segment. 

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    The fusion process can lead to reduced mobility and adjacent segment degeneration in all patients, regardless of age. In fact, when spinal fusion is performed on younger patients, it’s more likely to lead to complications. This is simply because younger patients have more years to experience the effects of spinal degeneration.

    Spinal Fusion Alternatives

    Adolescents and adults can both benefit from the TOPS™ System as a spinal fusion alternative. A TOPS™ System implant can be used following decompression spine surgery, rather than the spinal fusion procedure that’s typically performed.

    Whereas spine fusion surgery eliminates the independent movement of fused vertebrae, the TOPS™ System preserves each vertebra’s full range of flexion and rotational motion. That’s welcome news for spine decompression patients of all ages.

    If you or your child is struggling to manage persistent back pain, schedule an appointment with a spine specialist in your area to learn more about your treatment options.