What Obesity Does to the Spine

Degenerative Disc DiseaseSpinal StenosisHerniated Discs

Dr. Kaliq Chang with tips on understanding back pain and spinal damage wrought by carrying too many pounds.

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.

Obesity is a medical condition that affects a large portion of the global population. It is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, which can lead to a number of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. One area of the body that is particularly affected by obesity is the spine.

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 lower back muscles and joints at the core of the body.”

Obesity causes

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:

  • Disc degeneration, when vertebral discs weaken, lose moisture and begin to collapse
  • Herniated discs, when the soft center of spinal discs push through the tough outer shell
  • Compression fractures, when vertebral bones decrease 15-20% in height due to breakage
  • Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal

All of these spinal conditions can prompt troublesome or even dangerous symptoms, including lower back pinched nerve, chronic spine 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.

Back pain causes

Even when obesity-related back pain is intermittent, there are several traceable triggers for why and how it occurs, Dr. Chang says.

Excess weight places a significant amount of stress on the spine, which can lead to a number of problems. For example, the increased pressure on the vertebrae can cause them to compress and shift out of their natural position. This can lead to a condition called spinal stenosis, where the spinal canal narrows and puts pressure on the nerves that run through it.

Obesity can also cause degenerative disc disease, which occurs when the discs between the vertebrae break down over time. This can cause the discs to bulge or herniate, putting pressure on the nerves and causing pain and discomfort.

Another problem associated with obesity and the spine is osteoarthritis. This is a degenerative joint disease that can affect the joints in the spine, causing pain, stiffness, and decreased range of motion. In addition, obesity can increase the risk of fractures in the spine, especially in the elderly population.

Furthermore, obesity can affect the way a person moves, which can put additional stress on the spine. For example, obese individuals tend to have poor posture, which can cause the spine to become misaligned over time.

Overall, obesity can have a significant impact on the health of the spine. It can lead to a number of problems, including spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, and fractures. In order to reduce the risk of these conditions, it is important for obese individuals to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise. If you are struggling with obesity and are experiencing back pain, it is important to seek medical attention in order to prevent further damage to the spine.

"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?”