Back Pain

What is back pain?

Anything that puts stress on the bones, tissues or nerves of the spine can make your child’s back hurt. All children can have back pain, but it is less common before age 10. Most back pain goes away in a short time, usually a few days.

What causes back pain in children?

Usually, back pain in children is not caused by a serious condition.

Children and teens may feel pain in their backs if they have been carrying something heavy, such as a backpack or laundry basket. (Research studies do not clearly tell us if carrying a backpack harms children’s backs.)

They may hurt their backs if they fall while running or playing or if they are injured during sports.

Often, stress, depression or anxiety can show up as back pain in children and teens, or these conditions can make back pain worse.

When is back pain an emergency?

Call 911 or take your child to our Emergency Department if back pain starts after your child has a major injury, like from sports or a car crash, or if you think they might have a life-threatening condition.

How can we prevent back pain?

Both children and adults are less likely to have back pain if they do regular aerobic exercise. This includes movement like running or playing hard enough to get out of breath. Aim for about a half-hour 3 to 4 times a week.

Why choose Seattle Children's for back pain treatment?

Seattle Children's is consitently ranked one of the nation's best othopedics programs by U.S. News and World ReportThe Spine Program at Seattle Children’s treats all kinds of spine problems in children, including upper and lower back pain. Ours is the largest pediatric spine center in the Pacific Northwest.

We offer the most comprehensive care for your child, no matter how complex their condition is. It’s why other hospitals in the region refer their most complex pediatric patients to us.

  • The experts you need are here
    • The Spine Program team includes doctors, surgeons, and from Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. They are skilled at assessing and treating back pain.
    • We take care to find out what is causing your child’s pain. Our experts do a careful exam to understand your child’s condition, how it affects your child and if it’s linked with other health concerns.
    • Back pain can affect more than a child’s bones, muscles and joints. That’s why we connect you and your family with any expert your child may need across Seattle Children’s. For example, we may involve Adolescent MedicineRehabilitation MedicineRheumatologyNeurosurgery and Pain Medicine.
  • Our approach to treatment avoids surgery whenever possible
    • We believe that most back problems in children do not need surgery. We can successfully treat back pain in most children with other methods.
    • Nonsurgical treatment often means rest, medicine, bracing, physical therapybiofeedback, or mental health therapy. We have orthotists, who build and fit braces; physical therapists; biofeedback specialists; and a team that provides mental health care.
    • If your child does need surgery, our orthopedic spine surgeons are leaders in their field. They have more training and experience with children’s complex spine conditions than anyone else in the area. Spine surgery for children is all they do. Each is .
    • Before we recommend surgery, we look at your child as a whole person. Your child’s team will take many factors into account. These include how serious their condition is, the effects on their health and how much more they will grow. We also consider what results you can expect from treatment.
    • We have the technology and skills to use 3D imaging to guide your child’s surgery, if needed. This helps us place hardware, such as for scoliosis, with precision. It also lets us see in real time the changes we make to your child’s spine. Based on your child’s needs, we may use or .
    • helps us prevent a spinal cord injury during surgery. Our surgical spinal cord monitoring team leads the country in new ways to make back surgery safer. 
  • Care from birth through young adulthood
    • The team from our Spine Program is trained not only to treat back pain. We specialize in caring for kids. We know how to care for all types of spine problems in children and teens, whose bodies are still developing.
    • When we evaluate your child’s back pain, plan their treatment and provide their care, we consider your child’s needs based on their age.
    • If your child needs imaging that uses radiation, we use the lowest amount possible (PDF) to make the best image. We have a low-dose radiation X-ray machine, called the EOS. It makes safer full-body images. We also have the largest group of  pediatric radiologists in the Northwest.
  • Support for your whole family
    • We know it can be stressful to have a child with a back problem and to find the treatment they need. Everyone at Seattle Children’s works to make your experience here as easy as we can on your whole family.
    • Your child’s team does more than plan and provide care for your child. We also make sure you and your child understand your child’s condition and treatment options.
    • Care is easier for you because your child’s team members from the Spine Program work closely with each other — and with other programs and clinics your child may need at Seattle Children’s.
    • Seattle Children’s supports your family with a range of resources. Our Child Life specialistsFamily Resource Center and Guest Services are here to help.
  • Research to improve care
    • Members of the Spine Program team are leaders in research. We are always tracking the results of our patients’ care so we can be sure we are choosing the best treatment for each child. Your child’s care team may ask if you want to be involved in research. For example, we may ask to include data about your child’s condition and treatment in our studies.
    • Our spine experts are part of national and international research groups. These groups study the latest treatment approaches and technologies. Together, we work to find the best and safest ways to care for children. We are part of the Scoliosis Research SocietyPediatric Spine Study GroupHarms Study Group and Fox Congenital Spine Study Group.
    • Learn more about current orthopedics research at Seattle Children’s.

What are the symptoms of back pain?

Back pain may feel: 

  • Dull, like achy muscles
  • Very sharp, like a shooting or stabbing feeling 

Back pain can make it hard for your child to bend or stand up straight.

How long does back pain last?

For most children, back pain goes away after a few days of rest.

In young children, back pain usually does not limit activity for more than 1 or 2 days.

More and more teenagers say they have ongoing back pain. Up to 3 in 10 teens have times when back pain is bad enough to limit their activities for a few days to a few weeks.

When to call the doctor about back pain

Call your child’s primary care provider (PCP) if you think your child needs to be seen for back pain or if any of these is true:

  • The pain is severe or gets worse.
  • Pain shoots into your child’s buttock or down their leg.
  • Your child has numbness, tingling or weakness in their legs or feet.
  • Your child’s bladder or bowel control has changed.
  • There is blood in your child’s pee, or they feel pain or burning when they pee.
  • Your child has a fever along with back pain.
  • Pain changes how your child walks for more than a few days.
  • Your child’s back pain lasts more than 2 weeks.
  • Your child has back pain often.

When to come to Seattle Children’s for back pain

Most of the time, your child’s PCP can diagnose and manage back pain. After trying some treatment, your child’s PCP may refer your child to Seattle Children’s for further care.

We focus on moderate to severe back pain. Many of our patients have had back pain for more than 6 weeks, and it hasn’t improved.

If you think your child may need to be seen by Seattle Children’s Spine Program, contact Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at 206-987-2109.

How is back pain diagnosed?

When your child comes to our clinic, they will see a , or doctor. These team members are specially trained in children’s back and spine care. We will examine your child’s back and ask about their condition. Based on your child’s needs, we may recommend tests.

  • Questions your child’s team may ask

    Our team will ask about your child’s medical history. We’ll also ask questions like these to find out what is wrong:

    • How bad is the pain?
      • Does it prevent your child from sleeping at night, going to school or playing?
      • Does your child have to stop sports or other activities they enjoy?
    • How long has your child had back pain?
    • Is the back pain worse early in the day or late in the day?
    • Does your child feel numbness, tingling or weakness in their legs?
    • Has the back pain changed bladder control or bowel movements?
    • Has your child lost a lot of weight or had a high fever along with the back pain?
  • Tests your child may have

    We will check your child’s and their reflexes and do other tests. We may ask that your child have .

    After reviewing the X-rays, the exam results and your child’s symptoms, we may ask for more tests, including:

    • Blood tests to check for 
    •  to look for inflamed spots in the bones of the spine
    •  to look at the  and other parts of the spine that are not bone

How is back pain treated?

Often, back pain goes away within a few days to a couple of weeks without any treatment. Rest may be all your child needs — not complete bed rest but taking a break from anything that increases the pain.

Even if your child’s pain is moderate to severe or it has lasted several weeks, nonsurgical treatments usually provide relief.

Nonsurgical treatments for back pain

Most children who have back pain are helped with:

Surgery for back pain

Children rarely need surgery for back pain. Surgery is only used if your child’s pain relates to a more complex condition, such as spondylolisthesis or a benign (noncancerous) tumor.

Contact Us

Contact Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at 206-987-2109 for an appointment, a second opinion or more information.

Providers, see how to refer a patient.

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