With so much focus on the many health risks of obesity – including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – many people overlook what obesity can also do to the spine, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
About one-third of American adults – approximately 79 million people – have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, classifying them as obese. And while carrying so much extra weight is linked with a litany of overall health problems, it also does a number on the spine. According to a 2016 study in Global Spine Journal, a growing body of scientific research suggests obesity may contribute to increased rates of specific spinal problems as well as low back pain.
“It’s common knowledge at this point that being 20% or more above your ideal weight – another way of defining obesity – raises your chances of suffering major physical challenges, which also include conditions such as high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and sleep apnea,” Dr. Chang explains. “But we tend to forget how extra pounds can stress the spine.”
“The fact is, obesity places a great deal of additional strain and pressure on back and spine tissues,” he adds. “It shifts your center of gravity and taxes all of the muscles and joints at the core of the body.”
Spine damage linked to obesity
While our vertebral column – the path of vertebrae extending down the spine – tends to weaken with age, this process accelerates in obese people, Dr. Chang says. This can trigger a variety of spinal problems, including:
1.Disc Degeneration When vertebral discs weaken, lose moisture, and begin to collapse
2.Herniated discs When the soft center of spinal discs push through the tough outer shell
3.Compression fractures When vertebral bones decrease 15-20% in height due to breakage
4.Spinal stenosis A narrowing of the spinal canal
All of these spinal conditions can prompt troublesome or even dangerous symptoms, including chronic pain, numbness, and tingling in the neck, back, arms or legs, explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist.
When these problems become severe and non-surgical measures don’t work to ease them, spinal surgery may be necessary, he notes. But here, too, obesity can be detrimental to recovery. The 2016 Global Spine Journal research revealed that obese patients who’ve undergone spine surgery have higher risks of experiencing post-surgical complications such as infection and blood clots.
Obesity-related back pain triggers
Even when obesity-related back pain is intermittent, there are several traceable triggers for why and how it occurs, Dr. Chang says. The low back is especially vulnerable to the effects of obesity due to:
Poor posture: The natural curve of the lower back becomes exaggerated when extra weight causes the pelvis to tilt too far forward
Osteoporosis: Bone density can suffer when an unhealthy diet combines with lack of exercise, compromising the spine’s ability to properly support body weight
Osteoarthritis: Excessive pounds around the belly places extra stress on spinal joints, causing “wear and tear” arthritis from vertebrae rubbing together
If we didn’t already have enough reasons to avoid gaining extra weight – and we did – its potential to bring about or worsen back problems is a highly convincing one,” Dr. Chang says. “Back pain can detract from our quality of life in major ways – why risk it?”