Victims of lower back pain are getting younger

Sedentary lives mean more people in their 20s and 30s are reporting spinal complaints, say experts.

Back pain is rising among people in their 20s and 30s, according to research in the UK, which matches the experience of experts in the UAE.
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The lifestyles of young people in the UAE could lead to years of back pain and medical problems, according to new research. A recent study from the UK indicates that two-thirds of people between 18 and 34 years old regularly suffer from spine and back-muscle complaints. Now, experts in the UAE fear that the severity of this problem could mean thousands of young men and women are destined to spend the rest of their lives with chronic back pain.

Health concerns around lifestyle-linked spinal problems are being described as a "time bomb" in Britain, where researchers found that 62 per cent of young people suffer from back pain - with half of those reporting they'd had the symptoms for up to five years.

The study echoes anecdotal findings among back specialists in the UAE. "I'm definitely seeing a rise in the number of young people coming to the clinic with back pain," says Gary Fitzgerald, a chiropractor at the Wellbeing Medical Centre in Dubai. "It's possibly even worse here because the average age of the population is younger than that in Europe and the vast majority of patients that I see in the 18 to 34-year-old age group have mainly sedentary, office-based jobs."

It's this "sit still" culture that is, according to the experts, the main cause for concern. "Continuously sitting in one place for long periods of time, be it in the car or the office, causes some muscles and joints to stiffen and some to overwork," says Fitzgerald. "As the majority of people are not just sitting for too long but also sitting incorrectly, these small errors in posture are multiplied over time and can lead to chronic joint, muscle and disc problems."

The human body is designed to move, he adds. "And just like going dune-bashing in the desert with a sports car, if we use a machine for something it's not designed to do, eventually that machine will break down."

While the survey focuses predominantly on the working population among people in their 20s and 30s, some leading back specialists have also highlighted worries that the seeds of the problem may be sown at a much earlier age.

"The incidence of lower back pain in the Arab world is definitely on the rise," says Issam Ayache, a chiropractor with three decades of experience practising in Lebanon and Abu Dhabi. "In particular, I have found that school kids are suffering, often as a result of carrying too heavy a school pack - which in some cases weighs more than 50 per cent of the child - coupled with the way it is carried."

Ayache also blames the encouragement of the "sit still" trend among the very young as a big contributor to the increase in the spinal and muscle conditions he treats. "A lack of parents' encouragement for their children to participate in regular exercise has not helped this situation," he argues. "Also, the overuse of modern gadgets, which children are using with their fingers and straining their hand joints, compounds these problems."

Although statistical evidence is not as readily available as it is in the UK, several experts told The National there was no reason why the UAE would not mirror trends in Europe or the US, since the lifestyles and work environments were essentially the same. Indeed, specialists even fear that the situation is much worse here. "The level of penetration in understanding spine and musculoskeletal issues within Emiratis is very much at the first stage," warns Samuel Saukkonen, the medical director of Chiropractic Dubai at the Emirates European Medical Centre in Jumeirah. "It's like it was 30 years ago in Europe."

He adds: "In our clinic, we are very blessed to work with expats and Emiratis, and also have people visiting us from other GCC countries. We have seen a shift in the age of the average person suffering from back pain - specifically to that of just under 20 through to those just over 30. Also, the severity of the condition has increased within this age bracket; more and more young people are presenting with disc herniations and ruptures."

Saukkonen partly blames what he calls "pressure to do more man hours in the office" and the consequent increase in workload. "The easiest thing to sacrifice is the time dedicated to any physical activity," he says. "Thankfully, the government is seeing this problem and doing its utmost, with new health initiative campaigns starting every week, though the changes will take time."

Like Ayache, Saukkonen also worries that targeting the working population will not be enough and that the back-pain time bomb needs to be defused at school age. "The youngest patient I have encountered with a diagnosed disc herniation was only 12 years old," says Saukkonen. "That is unimaginable, but I have seen it!"

Chiropractic - Abu Dhabi:

Emirates European Medical Centre:

How to beat back problems

"Many causes of back pain in young adults are due to prolonged sitting and sitting incorrectly," says Gary Fitzgerald. "The main way to avoid these issues is to do just the opposite." You can minimise bone and muscle issues if you do the following:

  • Take frequent breaks from the desk. "This doesn't even mean you have to stop working," says Fitzgerald. "Just stand up for every third phone call, if the call is on your mobile walk around the office, and if you are getting something from the photocopier, take the long route."
  • Ideally you should take a 10 per cent break from sitting. "So if you've been sitting for 20 minutes move for two, if you've been sitting for 30 minutes move for three, but try to not go more than a maximum of 40 minutes without standing."
  • If you must sit, at least make sure you are doing it in as correct a way as possible. "Our spines are like skyscrapers," says Fitzgerald. "If they lean to one side you are going to run into problems. If you can sit up straight, don't hunch over your desk and don't always lean on one arm of your chair, you can go a long way towards preventing back pain."
  • "Take simple exercise whenever you can," says Samuel Saukkonen. "Walk two to four times a week, at least 30 minutes, preferably on firm ground, and have a swim of 20 to 40 minutes, ideally three times a week."
  • If you already have pain you may first need to go and see a chiropractor or physiotherapist. "They can help you with your current problem and give you even more specific advice for your specific problem, lifestyle and work environment," says Saukkonen.