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Weight Gain and Back Pain

Dr. Anand Blog Article

July 7th, 2017

Exploring ways that extra pounds can sabotage spine health.

Consider this alarming fact: In America, nearly 7 out of 10 people are overweight or obese. The statistic is an alarming one considering it has more than doubled since the early 1960s. Furthermore, when we consider how being overweight affects general health and well-being, that’s when the alarm sounds! Being overweight contributes directly to an increased risk for numerous health problems; the major ones being diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart disease (this includes stroke and heart attacks). It’s clear that carrying around extra weight that is not meant to be there induces extraordinary stress on the body and its functions, and not surprisingly, all the way down to its basic framework: the spine.

Weight Gain and Back Pain

The spine is expertly designed to support the body’s natural weight evenly, allowing us to stand up tall, walk, run, and jump. The delicate building blocks of the spine – the vertebrae and spinal discs – can withstand the pressure of an appropriate weight, but when the body begins to pack on extra pounds that intricately designed system begins to deteriorate from the excess weight the body must now withstand. This added stress leads to many painful and destructive spine conditions as the intervertebral discs and vertebrae become overworked and injured. Imagine a car that is so over-packed and heavy that the tires begin to bulge and aren’t able to hold up the car properly – this is exactly what happens to spinal discs on an overweight person.

One region of the spine that is especially hard hit by weight gain is the lumbar spine (or low back). Though the pain may initially hit there, it can cause a chain reaction as it moves through all the working parts of the spine. Ultimately, this increased pressure in the low back can begin to alter the normal spinal curve. An increased curve in the lower back can cause the pelvis to push too far forward, throwing off the entire balance of the spine and damaging the posture, which can lead to more back pain. In addition, having excess belly fat will also pull the pelvis forward, following the same pattern of injury. As the posture continues to weaken, pain may manifest in other areas of the spine, such as the cervical (neck) region.

Additionally, the pressure of extra weight on the intervertebral discs may cause them to herniate (the car tire example) and push on surrounding nerves, resulting in sciatica pain. In someone who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, or osteoarthritis, excessive weight puts extra pressure on these already damaged joints, multiplying the damage done and the pain being felt. Those who are considered obese (with a Body Mass Index of 25 or greater) are also at increased risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Muscles also play a part in keeping the back healthy and pain free by supporting the spine, and for muscles to be as strong as they can be they need exercise. This becomes one of the biggest problems in overweight people with back pain. Exercise can be initially difficult due to the added weight (experiencing fatigue, chronic pain, shortness of breath). Inactivity, both in overweight and normal weight patients, is equally damaging as a simple lack of exercise contributes to many common forms of back pain. Osteoporosis is one result of a sedentary lifestyle. It causes the spinal bones to weaken, putting them at a much greater risk for fractures which can be extremely painful and further disabling. To avoid this, attention to weight loss is the golden ticket, through both dietary changes and physical activity.

If you are suffering from back pain and are overweight, it is important to understand that the added pounds are a likely contributing factor to the pain. It may not seem like much, but as little as a few extra pounds can begin to negatively alter your spine health, and the more weight that is gained, the more involved the back pain can become. As the first line of defense against back pain, weight loss comes in first place- in both eliminating current pain and preventing any future pain or injuries. Talk with your spine doctor to establish a fitness regimen that is appropriate for your fitness level and physical ability, and start working hard to give your spine the care it needs so that it can take care of you for many years to come.


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