You may be well aware of your body’s unique strengths and weaknesses, but your teenager’s growing and changing body is another story. Even if your son or daughter is a fine athlete who is well-conditioned, practiced, and seemingly in tune with how far they can push themselves, injuries can—and do—happen. Knowing when to see a back doctor if your child athlete gets hurt or is experiencing back pain can help you protect their health long-term.
When pain is the result of a fall, a hard hit or some other event on the court, field, track, or ice, or in the gym
“Back pain in a child that occurs immediately after an injury or an athletic event should be checked by a doctor,” said WebMD. Adrenaline may keep your teenager from recognizing the severity of the pain or realizing there is an injury at all. Concussion protocol is in place for head injuries, however, back injuries suffered during a game or practice should also be checked out immediately after occurring, and monitored thereafter.
When he or she complains of pain
Athletes are often taught to be tough and to “suck it up” or “walk it off.” Especially if your child is in a high-contact sport and is used to getting banged around, he or she might have learned to live with some sort of ongoing pain—at least during the season or after especially hard practices. If your child is talking about the pain or if you see signs like wincing, straining, or favoring an area, make an appointment to see a back doctor. This is especially true if your child doesn’t tend to be a complainer and may attempt to keep pain or injury to him or herself.
When the pain isn’t going away
If your teenager had a particularly physical game or practice—even if there wasn’t one specific incident that stands out—and is in pain for some time after returning home, he or she may need more than ice. It may be time to make an appointment to see a leading back doctor. Sports like basketball, football, hockey, and dance can put a lot of stress on the body, often resulting in muscle strains—especially in the lower back area. Baseball players have also been known to deal with lower back problems because of the “extreme motions involved in pitching and swinging,” said Livestrong.
The AAOS recommends that young athletes “always see a doctor if…back pain lasts for more than several days or progressively worsens.”
When he or she has symptoms of spondylolysis
Pain that lasts for more than a day or two and that is limiting your child’s movement could be more serious than you think. He or she could have spondylolysis. “With spondylolysis, a weakness in this area can lead to fractures and accompanying low-back pain,” said Livestrong. “Although spondylolysis is a more common injury in contact sports, both pitching a baseball and swinging a baseball bat can exert high levels of twisting force on the lower back, resulting in stress fractures to this region.” Young gymnasts and swimmers also commonly suffer this type of back injury because of the demands of the sports.
WebMD points to specific athletic movements, such as “handsprings in gymnastics, the butterfly stroke in swimming, or contact sports,” that can cause spondylolysis. “Young athletes with low back pain have a higher-than-average incidence of spondylolysis—in fact, studies show that nearly 50 percent of young athletes like gymnasts and linemen in football show signs of the condition. “These injuries are usually caused by activity and overuse.”
Help for spondylolysis is generally conservative and consists of minimally invasive treatments, with a leading back doctor prescribing stretching exercises, over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medication, heat and/or ice, and physical therapy.
If the back pain is accompanied by other symptoms
“Back pain in children is not like back pain in adults,” said the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). “Compared to an adult,” and especially if there has not been a specific event that preceded the onset of pain, “a child with a backache is more likely to have a serious underlying disorder.”
If your teenage athlete is experiencing back pain with “fever or weight loss, weakness or numbness, trouble walking, pain that radiates down one or both legs, bowel or bladder problems, or pain that keeps them from sleeping,” a trip to a back doctor should be in your immediate plans.