Half of Space Travelers Experience Back Pain

piranka/istockphoto.com

The human spine is built to support our bodies under the gravitational forces experienced on Earth.

With growing numbers of humans venturing into space, experts predict an increase in the number of people experiencing back pain.

The prediction comes in a new report in the journal Anesthesiology, based on a comprehensive review of past studies measuring the effects of space travel on the spine, and exploring methods to prevent, diagnose, and treat back pain.

The scientists say further study among astronauts of these methods—including specialized suits and certain exercises—may provide insights for treating back pain in the estimated 80% of Earth-bound people who experience some form of it over their lifetimes.

Steven Cohen, professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine and a retired Army colonel, states, “Perhaps more importantly, insight into back pain in space travelers may provide usable information to treat back pain in other populations.”

Back Pain in Space

According to the review, past studies of astronauts have shown that 52% of space travelers report some form of back pain in the first two to five days of space travel. That figure is based on a retrospective study of 722 space flights worldwide published in Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance in 2012. The condition is now dubbed “space adaptation back pain,” and although 86% of cases were mild, the pain was enough to hinder an astronaut’s ability to complete tasks.

In addition to the studies among astronauts, a study from the University of Innsbruck in Austria showed that nearly half of military helicopter pilots and crewmembers who experience fluctuating gravitational forces report low back pain. The pilots are almost three times more likely to develop lumbar (lower back) disc herniation—an injury to the soft connective cushioning in the spine—compared with the general population.

Astronauts are more than four times as likely to herniate a disc, according to a NASA study in 2010, and the risk was even higher in the first year after returning to Earth.

Gravity and the Spine

Penchev says the high prevalence of back pain among these groups is understandable because the human spine is built to support our bodies under the gravitational forces experienced on Earth.

One prominent feature is the spinal curvature—an S-shaped bend in the spine that allows it to resist gravity, remain flexible, and absorb weight and impact. However, in microgravity, this curve reduces. Some of the earliest data from space explorations, say the researchers, showed astronauts “grew” over 3 inches in space due to the loss of this curve. More recent studies using MRI scans showed modern-day astronauts have a reduced curve in their spine.

“If reduced gravity allows this curvature to straighten,” says Radostin Penchev, resident physician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, “this not only could be a cause of acute pain in astronauts, but also could affect the stability of their spine when they return to earth.”

Time for space suspenders?

In their review of past studies, the researchers say that along with microgravity’s stresses, other contributors to back pain in space include the intense physical experience of riding in a rocket and a change in dietary habits that could alter nutritional levels in the body and impact tissue health and healing.

Throughout the Space Age, the researchers say resistance exercises—such as isometrics, squats, lunges, and bench pressing—have been a mainstay of back pain prevention, and space stations are equipped with exercise machines and other resistance training tools.

“Science fiction has popularized the spinning space station that uses centrifugal force to mimic gravity,” says Penchev. A more realistic and perhaps better alternative, he adds, are specialized suits that provide spinal resistance similar to that experienced under Earth’s gravity.

The experience is similar to donning rubber bands from the shoulders to hips to help activate the muscle groups that keep us standing upright on Earth, say the researchers. The Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance study of 722 space flights showed that the use of such a resistance suit along with exercise regimens relieved space-adaptation back pain in 85% of subjects. However, some astronauts complain these suits are uncomfortable and impair their range of motion.

Other methods to prevent back pain among astronauts mentioned by the researchers include massage, nutritional supplementation to increase vitamin D and caloric intake, neuromuscular electrical stimulation, and negative pressure devices, all paired with resistance exercise.

To combat the intense vibrations and speed of riding rockets into space, Cohen, Penchev, and their team believe that engineering space vehicles to improve impact protection for the flight crew and align the forces of acceleration and impact with human anatomy could reduce the number of astronauts experiencing long-term back pain or injury.

Collaborators on the review article are from NASA’s Johnson Space Center; the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the Tripler Army Medical Center; the Naval Medical Center-San Diego; and NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the University of Texas.

Support for the work came from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and from the US Department of Defense.

This article was originally published in Futurity. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.