What lessons do astronauts with back pain have for the back pain sufferer?

Back pain is commonly reported by Astronauts who spend several months in space.

A huge 70% of astronauts report back pain. In astronauts with a history of back pain there is a 100% re-occurrence rate. So what is it about space travel that creates an environment where back pain is so prevalent?

Recent research suggests back pain in astronauts is most likely caused by changes in spinal length and wasting of the muscles that stabilise and support the spine.

Researchers have found that while in space the spine lengthens and flattens, losing its natural curve (lordosis). This is associated with herniated discs (bulging disc) and moderate to severe low back pain.

What does the research say about lack of exercise and back pain?

A recent study (1) found that astronauts spinal muscles, responsible for posture and stability had reduced in size and that this likely contributed to their back pain. The authors also found that, following 12 months of rehabilitation, the size of most of the muscles had returned to normal.

The same mechanism of disuse and deconditioning of spinal muscles in astronauts is also thought to cause back pain in the normal population. But instead of lack of gravity causing these changes, deconditioning occurs due to lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyles such as sitting in front of a computer all day.

The astronauts back rehabilitation protocol

A recent rehabilitation programme for astronauts (2) based on research of both astronauts and the normal population with back pain recommends;

  • Rehabilitation exercises should begin with spinal stability and postureexercises with special attention to maintenance of spinal curves
  • Exercises should progress to trunk strengthening once lumbar posture is restored
  • Exercises should progress to more strenuous general resistance exercises and cardiovascular training.

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