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Don't Turn Your Back on Spinal Fitness

Optimal neck and back health for the family.

If your family members often complain of back and neck pain, you’re not alone.

Back pain is the second most common reason for doctor’s visits with an estimated 80 percent of the population experiencing a back problem at some time in their lives. That’s why it’s never too early to start “watching your child’s back” to instill good habits that will ensure a lifetime of optimal spinal fitness.

What causes back pain? The back is a complicated structure of bones, joints, ligaments and muscles. You can sprain ligaments, strain muscles, rupture disks and irritate joints, all of which can lead to neck and back pain. Many factors cause neck and back aches, including sports injuries, accidents, poor posture, heavy backpacks and even simple movements. Merely picking up a pencil from the floor can yield painful results.

The following are practical tips to help protect your children’s back and neck health, enabling them to enjoy painless and injury-free activities for years to come.

  • Beware of backpacks. Young children are suffering from back pain much earlier than previous generations, and the use of overweight backpacks is a major reason. Make sure your child’s backpack weighs no more than 5 to 10 percent of his body weight. A backpack should never hang more than four inches below the waistline. Urge your child to wear both shoulder straps to avoid a disproportionate shift of weight to one side, leading to neck and muscle spasms and lower-back pain. Wide, padded straps are essential. The shoulder straps should be adjustable so the backpack can be fitted to your child’s body.
  • Check computer ergonomics. At least 70 percent of America’s elementary school students use computers. Consequently, children are increasingly suffering from the effects of working at computer stations that are either designed for adults or poorly designed for children. If your family shares a computer workstation, ensure that it can be modified for each child’s use. Position the computer monitor to put the top of the screen at or above the child’s eye level. Also confirm that a workstation chair fits each child correctly. An ergonomic back cushion, pillow or a rolled-up towel can be placed in the small of the child’s back for added back support. Limit your youngster’s time at the computer and make sure he takes periodic stretch breaks during computing time. 
  • Equip young athletes. In today’s age of health and fitness, many kids are involved in sports. Parents need to help children prepare their bodies for athletics and prevent sports-related injuries. Ensure children wear the proper equipment. Certain contact sports, such as football and hockey, can be dangerous if the equipment does not properly fit. Check that all equipment, like helmets, pads and shoes, fit your child. Talk to your child’s coach or trainer if the equipment is damaged. Be sure your child— or his coach— includes a warm-up and stretching session before every practice, game or meet. Flexibility is key when striving to score that extra goal or make that critical play.
  • Stop slouching. Poor posture as a child can mean back pain as an adult. But how can you encourage your child to straighten up when “Quit slouching!’’ doesn’t do the trick? Add motion to sitting. As long periods of sitting motionless put stress on the spine, a child should stand up and move around as often as possible, preferably changing positions every half-hour.

Also heed the phrase, “raise the book.” Meaning, when your child is doing homework, he should prop his book at an angle by using a book stand or lean the textbook being read against another pile of books. If your child has to stand for a long time, advise him to put one foot up on something for a while, switching feet every so often, to remove some strain off the back.

Lastly, buy furniture designed for children. The best furniture for children is sized to fit their bodies. And, research shows that children are more likely to have good posture if they go without shoes as often as is safe and possible.

Back Protection Pointers for Parents

Being a mother can be a pain in the neck— and back. A daily routine of lifting kids, battling bulging handbags and dragging overstuffed packages can lead to back and neck issues. Here are simple steps to keep you strong and healthy, even when on-the-go.

  • Lighten your load. Carry a bag that weighs less than 10 percent of your body weight. The bag should have a wide adjustable strap to evenly distribute the bulk of the weight across your body. Avoid “shopper’s tilt” or carrying weight on one side of your body for a long period of time. 
  • Resist posture pitfalls. Be mindful of your posture even when performing daily activities such as brushing your teeth. Limit the amount of time you wear high heels because the weight of the foot is not evenly distributed in heals, adding spinal stress. 
  • Sleep smart. Pillows should keep your spine straight and your neck in a neutral position. When reading in bed, use a pillow to prop up your book.
  • Use child-proof lifting. Don’t bend from the waist when you lift a child— or heavy luggage or furniture. Squat with your back straight, keep the child or object you’re lifting close to you, and use your arms and legs to lift.
  • Hydrate your spine. As spine hydration is essential, drink lots of water. Caffeinated drinks and alcoholic beverages dehydrate the disc over time, which may result in microfractures and an unhealthy disc structure.
  • Get moving. Even a little exercise can go a long way. When you wake in the morning, start the day with a few easy stretches. Stand up and stretch your arms above your head. Do the “hug your best friend” move, wrapping your arms around your body, and turning as far as you can to the left, then the right.