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School and Your Child’s Spine: Back to Basics

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

Leaned forward, elbows on the desk. Leaning back, teetering on the chair’s back legs. Running from class to class to beat the bell.

Without a second thought, kids put their spine through a workout every day.

As a parent, your child’s health is paramount, but their spine health may not top your list of concerns.

Luckily, nurturing spine health in your child isn’t complicated. Proper posture and frequent exercise, along with safe and comfortable shoes and backpacks, can make the difference.

How your child feels emotionally can affect their spine health, too. Think about how tight your back feels after a stressful day.

Emotional well-being is closely tied to how children experience pain and stress. And the fallout from this stress can lead to depression, weight gain and loss of muscle strength, including back problems.

That’s just one example of how cultivating a positive attitude in your child can benefit their whole health in body, mind and spirit.

Why does it matter?

If the human body were a house, the spine would be the foundation. In addition to supporting about half of our body weight and allowing us to stand, the spine protects the spinal cord, the brain’s communications line with the body.

The word “backbone” is often used as a metaphor for the firmest part of something, and it’s synonymous with courage and character.

Despite all this, the spine is easy to forget — until it isn’t. Finish this sentence: “Oh, my aching ….”

It’s no surprise to learn the lower back is among the most common sites of pain. Kids don’t deal with the same aching backs as older adults, but asking their spines to carry too much weight can cause muscle strains.

Backpack-related injuries are up more than 330 percent since 1996, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and now result in an estimated 7,277 emergency visits each year.

Finding the right pack

That’s why it’s important to find the right pack and not overload it. A backpack should not weigh more than five percent to seven percent of your child’s body weight, says Raymund Woo, MD, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Florida Hospital for Children.

For the average 70-pound 10-year-old, that’s only about five pounds at most — roughly the weight of a two-liter bottle of soda.

Dr. Woo says a heavy backpack often leads children to lean forward or arch their back, putting stress on the spine.

A well-fitting backpack is important, too. The bottom should be about two inches above the child’s waist, and additional features like padded straps and a waist belt will help.

Back-friendly backpacks are becoming even more critical as more schools (especially high schools) phase out lockers and more teens carry all their materials for the day to each class.

Finally, even a safe backpack can be worn in an unsafe way. Though it can be fashionable to sling the backpack on one strap, that compresses the weight of the pack onto a smaller area, potentially leading to muscle strain.

Shoes, stress and specialization

It is, by now, a truism among experts: Sitting stresses spines, and endangers our health in other ways, too. According to Florida Hospital Medical Group’s Spine Health Institute, sitting puts 40 percent more pressure on the spine than standing does.

Given the hours students spend seated, it makes sense to give their back health a little extra attention. The Spine Health Institute has these extra pieces of advice to protect students’ spine health:

Pick the right shoe: Flimsy flip-flops may be fun for showers or walks to the beach, but they are not made for long walks. Their lack of arch support, thin soles and the need to curl your toes and walk differently can change your body mechanics and lead to lower back pain.

Don’t specialize in sports: Kids who work out intensely or concentrate on a single sport run the risk of overuse injuries and back pain. It’s a good idea to cross-train in different sports, giving their body a break from the repetitive actions of their original sport.

Stressed out: As with adults, it is our method of coping with stress that can matter as much as the experience of stress itself. Encourage your child to develop positive habits around stress, including regular aerobic activity.

Not just posturing: Adults with office jobs are familiar with what poor posture can do to them at work, and the same is true for their children. Slumping over a desk can lead to back and neck pain, so make sure your child has good posture habits. To get an idea of what that looks like, check out this video on sitting comfortably while supporting your spine.

Bring on gym class

When it comes to injuries to the spine, one might think that gym class is ground zero. And while it’s true there are more bruises than in math class, the physical activity of gym class is a boon to bone health.

Any weight-bearing activity is good for bones, which are like muscles in that they become stronger when used.

A series of studies around the year 2000 found 10 minutes of jumping activities three times per week over a single school year led to small but significant benefits for both boys and girls. The girls saw a 3.1 percent gain in bone mineral content, a measure of bone strength, of the lower spine compared to a group of kids that didn’t do these activities.

These direct benefits are supplemented by kids being taught about how to exercise their spine and getting into the habit of physical exercise.

At Florida Hospital for Children, we see spine health as one part of integrated approach to whole health. And since the spine is the foundation of your child’s complete well-being, why not stand up and support it with a little extra love and attention?

For more information, call us at (855) 303-KIDS (5437) or schedule an appointment on our website.