According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), roughly 32% of American children and adolescents ages 2 – 19 are overweight or obese. This number has tripled over the past three decades.
In addition to causing many health problems, excess weight can put too much stress on the bones and muscles at a time when they are the most vulnerable. Putting excessive stress on the bones and muscles while the child is still growing can lead to permanent deformity and disability.
How Childhood Obesity Affects the Musculoskeletal System
As children gets older, their bones grow in size and strength; this growth is regulated by growth plates. Growth plates are areas of developing cartilage tissue located at the ends of the longer bones in the body, such as the arms or legs. These growth plates help determine the size and shape of the bones when children reach maturity. However, excess weight can damage growth plates, potentially resulting in deformity, increased risk of fractures, and an early onset of arthritis. These problems can affect the child’s mobility and coordination.
There are several musculoskeletal conditions that can affect obese or overweight children. Here is a list of the most common:
- Slipped Capital Femoral Epiphysis – This condition affects the hips, causing the upper end of the thighbone to slip backward out of the socket due to a weakened growth plate. This can cause a limp or inability to put weight on the leg. Surgery may be needed to stabilize the hip.
- Blount’s Disease – This condition causes a severe bowing of the legs. Stress on the growth plate can cause this irregular growth of the bone. In younger children or less severe cases, the problem may be corrected with a leg brace or orthotics, but more severe cases may require surgery to remove a wedge of bone and straighten the leg.
- Complications with Fractures – In addition to having a higher risk for fractures, children who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of complications that can affect the outcome of treatment. For example, it may be difficult for the child to use crutches, and a cast may not be sufficient to stabilize broken bones as they heal. For this reason, surgery may be required to fix the fracture in place.
- Flat Feet – Flat feet are a very common problem among obese and overweight children, preventing them from walking long distances. Weight loss helps to relieve stress on the feet, and orthotics and stretching exercises can help as well.
How Parents Can Help
As a parent, you want to do everything you can to keep your child healthy and prevent future harm. Here are some things you can do to encourage your children to adopt healthier habits.
- Do physical activities that are fun. Encourage your children to try out different sports, go to dance classes, or take up skating or skateboarding. If your children can find activities they are excited about, they will be more likely to stick with them, and exercise won’t seem like a chore.
- Set a good example. Children, especially when they are younger, learn by example. If you aren’t active and don’t eat healthy foods, your kids probably won’t either. When the whole family participates in a healthy lifestyle, your children are more likely to make healthier choices.
- Don’t buy overly processed, sugary foods, drinks, and snacks. It’s easier to eat healthier if you don’t have unhealthy foods in your home. Avoid sodas and sugary fruit juices, opting instead for water and milk. Also aim for more fresh produce rather than prepackaged snacks, which tend to be overly processed and unhealthy.
Childhood obesity is a serious issue that can affect children even into adulthood. As parents, we need to encourage our children to make healthier choices and give them the tools to do so.