Back Pain Studied in Outer Space!

Back Pain Studied in Outer Space!

Many individuals suffer from low back pain, but only a few can source the cause of their pain to time spent in outer space. Astronauts who spend prolonged periods of time in space often return to Earth suffering from low back pain and an increased risk of disc herniation, but only recently have researchers begun to understand why.

In a study led by Jeannie F. Bailey, PhD, of the University of California, researchers used MRI and fluoroscopy imaging to examine six NASA astronauts 30 days prior to a six-month space flight and again upon return. Prior to the study, it was believed that astronauts’ high propensity to low back pain and disc injury after returning from prolonged time in space (generally six months or more) was due to a swelling of intervertebral discs with fluid. However the University of California study, which won the Outstanding Paper Award for Medical/Interventional Science at the 2017 North American Spine Society (NASS) annual meeting, found that the more likely reason is multifidus atrophy, which destabilizes how weight is distributed by the vertebrae and puts undue pressure on facet joints.

The authors of the study hope that their findings will help better “inform new astronaut countermeasures” that prevent low back pain and disc injury upon return to Earth, including an increased focus on the multifidus muscles as part of the routine maintenance of in-flight spine health. They also suggested that their findings could have important implications for Earth-bound individuals experiencing low back pain as a result of a deconditioned spinal musculature.

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