Two orthopedic surgeons in the Netherlands coined the term "Gameboy back" to describe their patients, aged eight to 18, who are developing curved spines after sitting slumped over gadgets for long periods.
"For a young child up to 18 years old to have to see a spine surgeon is abnormal," said Mark Erwin, a professor of neurological and orthopedic surgery at the University of Toronto.
While Erwin hasn't seen such spinal changes directly, he said Canadian doctors are treating young patients earlier for serious back problems more commonly seen later in life.
"This is a real thing," said Erwin, who studies degenerative disc disease. "It seems to be so benign, kids playing video [games]. But it's not benign."
The spine normally has an "S" shape. But sitting all day with a rounded "C" shape over days and weeks puts an aberrant loan on muscles, ligaments and discs, he explained. Some muscles can become too weak, others too loose, and the problem can compound over time.
Researchers suspect that in people who are genetically susceptible, poor posture can tip them into developing serious problems such as herniated or "slipped" discs, Erwin said. In a herniated disc, the doughnut-shaped soft tissue cushioning the vertebra in the back ruptures and the gel inside leaks out.
Mackenzie Wood, 16, of Guelph, Ont., often feels the effects of sitting hunched over.
"I get a lot of lower back pain and in my shoulders and especially my neck. It causes me a lot of headaches," she said.
Wood is learning simple tips from her therapist to stop slouching, like sliding a rolled-up towel behind the back to re-learn how to hold herself.
"If you can catch them before it's too late, they can reverse it," Erwin said. "The big thing is to avoid it."
Children should be flexible and running around, he said. He recognizes it's often a challenge to get teens to work out, but he says getting out to play is "cheap insurance," for both back pain and Type 2 diabetes.