Dr. Allan Horowitz, published newspaper article, The Toronto Star, Copyright May 1, 1989

If you and your children have never given much thought to your spines, this may be the week to begin. Today is the beginning of Spinal Health Week. The idea is to get elementary school children to start thinking about taking care of their backs to avoid pain later on.

True, not many 8-year-olds are going to stay awake at night worrying about the health of their spines. But how many 40-year-olds can’t sleep at night because they have back pain? Plenty.

Most children don’t have back pain. But more than 80 percent of Canadians do experience back problems at some point, often caused by habits, lifestyle and posture problems from their childhoods. Something happens to the spine along the way which can probably be prevented if one just takes a minute to think.

From today until May 7, Metro’s school boards, in cooperation with the Ontario Chiropractic Association, will attempt to get kids to think of their backs the same way they now think of their teeth. Posters and more than 450,000 “Inspector Spine” cartoon books will be distributed to schools across the province.

Simple exam

There isn’t a school-aged child around who doesn’t know how to brush their teeth, thanks to the efforts of the dental associations. Now it’s time to help children be as aware of their spines- and how to keep them healthy- as they are of their teeth.

There are two main reasons to pay attention to the backs of our children. The first is to identify any abnormalities which might require prompt treatment or, at least, careful observation. The second reason is because the healthy, flexible, durable, pain-free backs of our young children somehow turn into the rigid, stiff, painful backs that many people suffer from as they get older.

In order to detect a spinal deformity, such as scoliosis (a spine curving to the side) or kyphosis (an upper spine that is excessively round), a simple spinal exam should be performed yearly on all children from the time they are 6 or 7 years old. Many school boards do this test routinely, but many others don’t. (If your child’s school doesn’t, talk to the local public health department.)

With the child wearing only underwear, standing in front of you and facing away, have the child bend forward from the waist. Watch the “bumps” of the spine and see that they remain in a straight line and form a gentle curve with no obvious prominences. The shoulders should be level, and the ribs on each side should not be “humping” unevenly.

Smooth curve

Have the child bend side to side. Watch for a smooth curve to form a “C” shape. With the child standing erect, look to see that the level of each ear, shoulder blade, hip and knee are all even to their counterparts, and that the pelvis is aligned. Have the child lie down and place the two ankle bones against each other. Are the legs of equal length?

These two or three minutes might be all that is necessary to catch an early curve before it gets bad. This might mean the difference between a child having to wear a brace and do some exercises, to requiring surgery to straighten the spine. The other reason to think about spinal health this week-and all the time- is that whatever you do to your back today will certainly be felt tomorrow. Or maybe next month or next year.

You can’t slouch, stand crooked, hunch over your desk, talk on the phone with your neck bent awkwardly, develop a pot belly, or lift improperly without it coming back to haunt you one day. You might not think it will happen to you, but when you least expect it, your spine will start crying out for attention. Pain, stiffness, poor posture and fatigue will make you wish you had thought of it before. So the message this week is:

  • Sit up straight with your back well supported.
  • Stand erect and tall with your back straight.
  • Sleep on a firm bed on your side or back with your knees bent.
  • Eat properly, get sufficient rest and exercise regularly.
  • Have any spinal disorders investigated immediately.
  • Lift and bend properly without straining your back.
  • Keep your spinal muscles and joints flexible and strong.

All children should be examined by a professional or a parent who understands how to conduct a proper spinal exam. And everyone, no matter how young or old, should remember the most important thing: always listen to your mamma when she yells at you to “stand up straight!”