What the Spines of Astronauts May Reveal About the Rest of Us

You don’t have to be a space traveler to heed some good spine health advice.

Since I am the proud son of a former NASA employee – my father – I have always been fascinated by this revolutionary space program. So when I came across some interesting spine health news recently that splashed across many a mainstream media headline: new research reveals that astronauts tend to experience back pain once they return to earth, I was excited to further investigate its findings. What the researchers of the study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT for short) concluded is that prolonged time in space and the associated lack of gravity can result in the shrinkage of and build-up of fat in spinal muscles. The study also reported a correlation between space travel and an increased risk of herniation in the spinal discs of astronauts.

Because space explorers fall into a unique category of professions and there is quite a bit of mystery and intrigue surrounding the nature of what they do, I am sure this study is an interesting one for the general public. However, most of us don’t think we can relate because we’ll never be selected for a mission to Mars. But what happens to the spines of astronauts after space travel is definitely an exciting topic to this spine health professional. The MIT study language revealed some additional clues as to why astronaut’s spines are susceptible to pain post-space mission and the unique qualities of space may not be the only reason why.

One of the additional aims of this study was to determine whether or not there was an association between exercise during space missions and atrophy of spinal muscles. Muscle atrophy refers merely to the loss of muscle tissue due to a variety of factors – disease, injury and yes, even inactivity. It seems understandable that it may be tough to get quality exercise in on a daily basis when you’re somewhat confined to a spacecraft. In fact, the researchers drew some interesting conclusions about a lack of activity having a negative impact on the astronaut’s spinal muscles. The study results indicated that more resistance training was connected to less shrinkage of some of the spinal muscles in question. Also, increased time spent exercising on a cycle ergometer was associated with less shrinkage of one of the muscle groups studied. And even though the study showed that exercise seemed to have no effect on muscle attenuation, or strength, I think the positive impact of physical activity on at least some of the astronauts’ muscles is worthy of consideration and hopefully, further study.

But you’re likely not an astronaut, so what does any of the above have to do with you? If you didn’t already need it, I see this study is an encouragement for all of us to move more. Whether we suspend our spines in space or leave them sedentary on the couch at home, we ignore the biological fact and bevy of proven clinical research which indicates that exercising the muscles surrounding our spines is the best possible protection we can give them against injury. And if the thought of an exercise regimen seems daunting to you, start with little changes to your daily routines. They can add up to tremendous health rewards down the road. For example: parking your car further away from your destination and taking a longer walk to get there; choosing the stairs over the elevator; getting up after sitting for 30 minutes and walking to the water cooler or doing a chore can all positively impact your spine and overall health, especially when done consistently over time.

The spine is one of the most intricate and essential structures of the human body, and when one part of it fails, like stacked dominos, other parts are often soon to follow. Having cared for so many patients who wished they had taken their spine health more seriously when they could have, I can tell you that focused exercises that build muscle strength are some of the best “health insurance” you can provide your future self – space traveler or not.



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