Teen years officially a pain in the neck
Thursday, 3 July 2008 Dani Cooper
Female adolescents suffer a higher rate of neck and shoulder pain than males (Source: iStockphoto)
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Australian researchers have proven what high school students have long suspected, being a teenager can be a real pain in the neck.
A survey of 1593 West Australian 14-year-olds has shown that one in 20 suffer prolonged neck and shoulder pain.
And, according to lead researcher Professor Leon Straker, almost half of all adolescents experience neck and shoulder pain at some time.
The findings, published recently in the journal Manual Therapy show neck and shoulder pain is far more common among teenagers than previously thought.
And according to Straker and his team at Curtin University of Technology's School of Physiotherapy, the National Health and Medical Research Council-funded project has also cast doubt on theories that the pain is primarily caused by posture.
"There is a widespread belief that posture is important in the development of neck and shoulder pain," he says.
"Our study shows that posture is only one small part of a bigger picture."
The children involved in the survey are participating in the Raine study, which is a long-term project that has been tracking their health and development since before they were born.
Straker says for their study the teenagers reported their experience of back pain via a questionnaire and their sitting posture was then assessed.
"Sitting measurements are particularly relevant for a study of adolescents, as [they] spend over a quarter of their waking hours sitting," Straker says.
Those adolescents that reported neck and shoulder pain said it was exacerbated while sitting.
To analyse sitting posture, reflective markers were placed on key parts of the children's body and they were then photographed sitting looking straight ahead and looking down.
By using computer modelling they were able to pick out the key difference in posture between those who had and had not experienced prolonged neck and shoulder pain.
Straker says females, who had a higher prevalence of neck and shoulder pain, tended to sit more erect than males in the group.
However, when males and females with prolonged neck and shoulder pain were compared, they "had similar postural patterns to the whole female group".
Straker says the key difference in posture, when gender was controlled, was that the lower back curved in more.
This finding runs counter to the clinical belief that prolonged neck and shoulder pain is related to postural problems in the top half of the spine, Straker says.
He says the role this posture difference plays in causing the pain is not yet known.
In the paper he suggests it may be that increased curvature at the lower back may alter motor control pattersn in the neck.
Straker says the prevalence of neck and shoulder pain in adolescents is of concern as it correlates to pain in adult life.
Increase in sedentary leisure
He says neck and shoulder pain becomes more common as children move into adolescence.
"There is something really important about the changes going on as kids move into adolescence," he says.
Changes in lifestyle are also impacting on the prevalence of neck and shoulder pain with a Finnish study showing a growth in the problem between this and the previous generation of teenagers, Straker says.
That study suggested this was connected with an increase in sedentary leisure activities such as playing of computer-based games.
Straker says his team believes the pain is the result of "interactions between different things".
These include factors such as depression, lifestyle and physical characteristics such as weight and motor development.
He says the team is now examining some of these factors including the impact of wearing backpacks and a possible link between depression and the onset of neck and shoulder pain.