Monday, December 29, 2014

Does chronic back pain begin in the teen years?

Posted Dec. 25, 2014, at 10:36 a.m.
Dr. Michael Noonan
Dr. Michael Noonan
Most people assume that teens do not have back or neck problems, or if they do, they are just sore from an injury or overuse. But when I ask an adult patient with chronic back pain when they first started having problems, it is not unusual for them to tell me they recall pain in their teens.

I started going to a doctor of chiropractic at 16, for treatment of low-back and leg pain. (The treatment was successful enough to determine my career.)

A recent study published in the BioMed Central Musculoskeletal Disorders journal followed 1,300 11- to 13-year-olds for two years, and the results will likely surprise you. Well over 80 percent said they had some kind of spinal pain, either in the neck, middle back, or low back. As expected, most of the teens just had mild, brief bouts of pain, but about 14 percent of the 11-year-olds and 20 percent of the 13-year-olds described their pain as “frequent.” They also found that, for teens with more pain at the beginning of the study, the pain had a tendency to worsen, as well as spread to other parts of the spine.

In another study, 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 34 percent of 15-year-olds sought some form of health care for spinal pain in Denmark. An earlier study looked at the changes in spinal pain over eight years of over 9,500 Danish twins, ranging in age from 12 to 30.

According to the authors, back pain in adolescence is a big risk factor for more serious pain as an adult. This means that addressing back and neck pain in teens would likely prevent a lot of problems in adults; that was certainly the case with me.

Chiropractic care gave me immediate relief, and continuing care, along with a wellness lifestyle, helps me stay pain-free most of the time, despite a lot of back arthritis. Since back pain is the single largest “chronic disease burden” in the world, according to the World Health Organization, the long-term goal would be to treat back pain when it starts, rather than waiting for it to become chronic. It is also important to treat it from many angles — including getting regular exercise, especially stretching; a healthy diet that keeps inflammation at bay; and controlling stress.

My patients with chronic back and neck pain who “follow through” with their care and self-care do much better than those who don’t. After 30 years of practice, I have many patients return for the same problem we helped a few years earlier. The ones who continued to do their exercises and perhaps improve their diets respond better than the ones who don’t. Even better off are the patients who continue with what is called “supportive” or “maintenance” chiropractic care; they choose to continue care, typically between once a month and once every three months. This not only helps them maintain the relief they got initially, but also to improve over time. There is some research that supports this observation; that is why doctors of chiropractic have always recommended preventive care.

It is very gratifying for me when a parent brings their teenaged son or daughter to me for care. I feel I can give them a fighting chance to control their problem, and perhaps prevent a lifetime of taking pain medications and dealing with pain. And who knows, they just might make a career out of it.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at

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