Are Teens Experiencing More Body Pain and Injuries?

This fall I have seen a surprising number of teenagers in my practice.  I think most people will say this is not surprising with all the phones and video games teens are using.  I agree.  boys-cellphones-children-159395But, let’s dissect this a bit more because teens are NOT going to stop using technology and devices are getting into the hands of younger and younger children all the time.  As a mom, grandma, and occupational therapist I must implore parents to do the best they can to balance tech time with lots of outdoor and indoor free whole-body play.

The teens I worked with last fall all were injured during exercise.  It was awesome that they were exercising.   I’m sure they and everyone around them most likely thought what they were doing was going to keep them healthy and protect them from injury.

Some of the teens were injured during exercise they were doing on their own, and two believed they were injured during training that was part of a school activities.  In two cases the activity was weight lifting, and one was following a DVD program. In all the cases the students said they had some instruction about how to do the exercise safely.  active-adult-athlete-703012When I asked them to describe how to do the tasks safely, it was quite superficial and, in most cases, included how to protect your back.  This is good, but it assumes the exerciser is starting with a body in proper alignment and know how to keep their back safe.

The Nebraska Department of Health Education standard related to the use of technology states, “Students will analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology and other factors on health behaviors”.  This standard is becoming more and more critical as generations of people including kids, parents, and grandparents are using technology.  Our children are observing us.  This is how they learn how to react to stress, grammar and speech patterns, gait (walking) patterns, gestures, posture, how to spend time and energy, etc.  It is not just about how technology affects health behaviors but how our family and culture is using technology. It is much bigger than what I am going to focus on in this short article.

This health education standard is incredibly important.  To my knowledge, there is no direct description related to how this standard must be implemented in a school’s curriculum.  Use of technology affects health in so many ways including mental, emotional, and physical health.  Just in the category of physical health, it can affect eyesight, attention skills, coordination, posture, body weight, etc. With so much to teach related to health education, it would be easy to miss the details of posture and body alignment.

Kids are using technology with rounded backs, tilted hips, rounded shoulders, and flexed necks. They are sitting for longer and longer periods. They are less likely to spend long periods in activities where they are jumping, climbing and running with recess and gym classes being shortened.  All this creates tighter muscles and fascia.  All this tightness continues to pull their bodies out of alignment.  When the human body is chronically out of alignment, meaning the muscles that surround the joints are either overstretched and tight or shortened and tight, the fascia’s job is to thicken up to protect joints. The fascia is trying to protect us and support the function we are asking our bodies to do most.  The problem comes when we ask our bodies to do something very different such as lifting free weights or doing burpees.

You may have heard your teen (or younger) complain of aches and pains, and you know they aren’t lifting weights or doing burpees. If our bodies are chronically out of alignment and stuck, even simple activities can be problematic such as lifting a heavy trash bag, pulling a box out from under the bed, or catching the dog who got out of the yard. It can even be as simple as reaching for the shampoo in the shower.  We should worry if we hear kids complaining of pain from these simple daily tasks.  We should really pay attention when we know our teens are starting to participate in more demanding exercise type activities.

athlete-exercise-female-163330Typically, if our bodies were in proper alignment, it would be no big deal to grab a couple of 5-pound weights and start pressing them to the ceiling. But, if our shoulders are stuck in a rounded forward position with muscles that are tightened in either a short or elongated position (even just a few millimeters), and we lift those weights, we are asking for trouble.  Our complex shoulder joints are designed for complex movement and need to be moved through their full range of motion regularly to function best.  Regularly doesn’t mean 3 times per week for 20 minutes.  Regularly means daily, several times per day. Instead, the position our neck and shoulders see most is rounded forward grasping a phone or typing on a computer.  This idea applies to our feet, ankles, knees, hips, ribs, neck, elbows, wrists and fingers, too.

We must educate our kids on what proper posture is, and that is it not just standing or sitting up straight.  It starts at the feet and goes to the top of the head with many important details in between. We must take responsibility for our children to help be sure their bodies don’t slowly get stuck in a poor position. We must watch over them, and if we allow lots of sitting time, we demand lots of whole-body movement time.  We must watch to be sure their bodies are not slowly rounding forward at the neck, shoulders, and hips. We are setting them up for injury when they are old enough to decide on their own it is time to move and get fit.  They must understand that body alignment is perhaps the most crucial part of a fitness routine.  They will experience more success and fewer injuries if they pay attention to the details of alignment first.

tomas-salas-81163-unsplashEvery fitness program, regardless of age, should begin with an assessment of your body alignment no matter how young (or old) you are.  If you find details of alignment that need to be corrected, every program should begin with exercises that focus on bringing the body back into alignment.  Once proper alignment is achieved, full-speed ahead.

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