Obesity and its Effects on the Spine
More than twenty years ago, federal health officials warned that a growing obesity epidemic was threatening the health of millions of Americans. Since then, the situation was gotten markedly worse. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. adult obesity rate is more than 40%.
“There's a great deal of focus on the obesity-related conditions – heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers – that are among the leading causes of preventable, premature death,” says Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, Endoscopic Spine Surgeon with Atlantic Spine Center, “but often overlooked are the effects obesity can have on the spine. Excess weight places a great deal of additional strain and pressure on back and spine tissues. It shifts your center of gravity and taxes all of the muscles and joints at the core of the body.”
Back pain is often attributed to the normal effects of aging. While it is true that aging tends to weaken the spinal column – the stack of bones (vertebrae) and gel-filled cushions between them – excess weight accelerates the process, triggering a range of spinal disorders:
Disc degeneration occurs when the discs between the vertebrae weaken, they lose moisture, and begin to collapse.
Herniated disc, also known as a ruptured or slipped disc, occurs when a tear in the tough outer layer of the disc allows some of the soft inner material to protrude out of the disk. If the protruding material compresses a nerve, the symptoms of a herniated disc are felt wherever that nerve travels.
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal that can compress the nerves that travel through the spine.
Osteoarthritis, which occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of the vertebrae wears down, can be triggered, or exacerbated by excess weight putting additional stress on the spine.
The spine is designed to support the body's weight, but excess weight makes it difficult for the spine to do its job properly and these conditions cause a variety of troublesome symptoms including chronic pain, numbness, and tingling in the neck, back, arms or legs.
“It isn't always possible to eliminate wear and tear on the back,” says Dr. Liu, “but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. These include general best practices for good health including weight management, regular exercise, and not smoking.”
Maintaining a healthy weight or losing weight can reduce stress on the spine and other joints as well. Losing just four pounds reduces 16 pounds of pressure on the spine. But losing weight is not the only avenue to improved back health. Dr. Liu highlights these important factors:
- Regular exercise - cardiovascular exercise and weightlifting - strengthen the supporting muscles of the back, pelvis, and thighs and activities like yoga and tai chi stretch the muscles and improve flexibility. Exercise can also improve posture and improve the unnatural curvature of the spine that often results from obesity.
- Good nutrition can also help your spine. Foods that are high in calcium and vitamin D, such as dairy foods and leafy green vegetables, can help prevent the bones in your spine from becoming thin and brittle.
- Use proper lifting techniques. Do not bend at the waist. Bend your knees while keeping your back straight and use your strong leg muscles to help you support the load.
- Practice good posture when walking, sitting, standing, and sleeping. For example, stand up straight with your shoulders back, abdomen in, and the small of your back flat. Sit with your feet flat on the floor or elevated. Sleep on a firm mattress and sleep on your side, not your stomach.
- Stretch often when sitting for long periods of time.
- Do not wear high-heeled shoes.
“Obesity takes a toll on the spine,” says Dr. Liu, “and as more and more adults are carrying excess weight, we are seeing an increase in spinal disorders, particularly those that cause lower back pain. The best remedy is to lose weight but the good practices I've outlined can also improve back health for everyone at any weight.”