Since the beginning of time, humankind has been drawn by the universe. In the years since Apollo 11 astronauts first set their feet on the lunar surface in 1969, over 72 countries have created the space program of their respective countries. In addition, with NASA’s plans for establish a permanent lunar presence by the year 2028 with the possibility of a staging area for further missions on Mars Human space exploration will continue to grow in the coming years.

However, any space-bound traveler may encounter one of the most common (and extremely frequent) terrestrial issue: back pain.

Nearly 50% of people who travel in space suffer from some kind of back discomfort during their journey in space, according to a study by a group of scientists and doctors that was released in Anesthesiology in 2021. Although the majority of back discomfort in space will go away by itself, the researchers predict that the amount of people experiencing this discomfort will grow with the anticipated increase in amount of human beings traveling beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

Further study of ways to prevent diagnosing and treating back discomfort among astronautsincluding spacesuits that are specially designed and specific types of exercise could be beneficial to those on Earth who are battling back pain also.

Back Pain and Outer Space

It isn’t necessary to be floating in microgravity, or climb onto the International Space Station to feel the ache of an aching back.

More than 65 million Americans are suffering from back discomfort at any given moment, with about 16 million suffering with chronic pain that hinders their activities. For the U.S., it’s the sixth-highest costing medical condition, costing an annual total of $12 billion in health care and associated expenses.

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“In some populations, it’s the leading cause of disability in the world,” says Steven P. Cohen, one of the report’s co-authors and a professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “And pretty much everyone gets back pain — if you are physically active, you will get back pain, even if it’s not reported.”

In their report, researchers conducted a thorough review of studies conducted prior to the report that looked at space travel’s effects upon the spine. The study revealed the fact that 52 percent of people who traveled in space experience back discomfort within the first three to five days following space travel when they adjusted to microgravity. This was according to the study of 722 space missions that were published in Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance in 2012.

Although the majority of cases were transient and minor and 90% of astronauts reported relief doing exercises like bending the spine or bending their knees towards their chest However, the pain impeded their ability to do their job.

While the majority of cases of the condition, known as “space adaption back pain” are limited to the initial few days in microgravity, shifting gravitational forces could result in issues such as disc herniation – an injury to the thin layer of tissue that connects and the spinal bones. Astronauts are three times more likely herniate discs than the rest of the population in a study from 2010. NASA study, and this is especially true immediately following their return back to Earth.

What causes back pain in Space?

Scientists are still trying to figure out the reason back discomfort is common for astronauts.

“The causes aren’t evident,” says Cohen. “But it may have to do with stretching of ligaments, which can occur [in microgravity.”

Our spines are built to help support us in the pressure of gravity on Earth and in particular, that of the spinal curvature, which is an S-shaped bend which lets our bodies remain flexible and absorb the weight and impacts. In microgravity, the curvature is flattened.

Early data from early explorations of space, which the researchers discovered, show that astronauts gained 3 inches of height due to the disappearance of spinal curve. After returning to Earth the spine curve generally is restored.

(Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine)

In the past, MRI scans found that astronauts of the present have flattened spine when they were in microgravity, in addition, according to the study released in The Spine Journal in 2018. Researchers suggest that this may not just cause their pain to be acute and discomfort, but also increases the risk of injury if they return to Earth and experience the full force of gravity.

There are other potential causes beyond the twitches of microgravity for instance, the high physical stress that is created by rocketing into space aboard a shuttle that is capable of reaching 17,500 miles per hour. The changes in astronauts’ diet habits could also affect their the nutritional status of their bodies, which could impact healing and health of tissue.

Treatment of Back the Pain of Space – and Beyond

Thankfully astronauts have stood strong against these forces for many years.

Through all of the Space Age, the researchers have written in their report that resistance exercises ranging from squats, isometrics, lunges and bench press -are a common element for back preventative measures for back pain. While exercise machines as well as other equipment for resistance training are available on space stations to assist in relieving pain and discomfort, but they are still a huge time drain, and requires astronauts to devote up to three hours a day exercising in the microgravity.

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There are other countermeasures, too. Specialized suits can provide spinal resistance that mimics the pressures felt under Earth’s gravity. For example, the recently redesigned

Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit

progressively increases the tension an astronaut feels on their limbs and spine.

Other strategies included in the report are preventative massages and nutritional supplements prior to as well as during travel in space. There’s also new technologies such as neuromuscular electrical stimulation that makes use of specialized equipment to send electrical signals which cause muscles to contract following the trip.

Some advances could even help our lives on Earth also. Cohen mentions drivers of long-distance trucks, who may be at the risk of developing back issues due to the rumbling that they feel as their trucks are squealing along.

“If we can come up with more efficient ways to shield astronauts and pilots, then we could be able to accomplish the same thing with truck drivers” Cohen says. Cohen. “And should we be able to develop more sensitive methods of detecting the presence of pathologies in joints, discs and ligaments, this could be beneficial to all of us — the people in general”

But, Cohen notes that more sensitive diagnostics are able to split the two ways. That means they can help determine those who require additional assistance however, they can be applied extensively to back issues that might not require intervention. “You’d simply need be careful when applying the method,” he says.