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%.
Obesity effects on the spine
“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 muscles and joints at the body’s core.”
Back pain causes
Back pain is often attributed to the expected 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, lose moisture, and begin to collapse.
- A herniated disc, also known as a ruptured or slipped disc, occurs when a tear in the disc’s tough outer layer allows some soft inner material to protrude from 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 puts additional stress on the spine.
The spine is designed to support the body's weight. Still, excess weight makes it difficult for the spine to do its job correctly, and these conditions cause various troublesome symptoms, including chronic pain, numbness, and tingling in the neck, back, arms or legs.
Back pain prevention
“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 also reduce stress on the spine and other joints. 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 the spine’s unnatural curvature that often results from obesity.
- Good nutrition can also help your spine. Foods 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.
- Drinking enough water is another key part of nutrition. As liquid is an essential part of back tissues and many back issues originate from tissue dehydration, mind your water intake.
- 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 on your side, not your stomach.
- Stretch often when sitting for long periods.
- Do not wear high-heeled shoes.
- Try to invest in proper equipment. A high-quality chair, a good mattress, and a pillow allow you to maintain good posture while sitting and get a good sleep to prevent back issues.
“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.”
Back pain prevention while lifting
You don’t need to lift something extremely heavy to hurt your back. You can still get injured if you bend down to lift something light. In this case, the posture matters the most, especially during just bending, as the pressure in the spine increases by over 40%; while lifting, the percentage is close to 100%. You can learn proper techniques to make lifting safer.
The first tip is not to bend from the waist, but instead squat to bring your body to a lower position. An arch in the lower back while lifting is another good tip. You can also use abs muscles and keep the object close to your belly to balance the pressure.
Don’t lift a heavy thing; instead, try to make several lifts of lighter items. Never twist your spine while bending, as it can lead to injury and back pain. These tips are essential while lifting kids and things in the morning when all your muscles are stiff.