New observations of astronauts before and after four to seven month long missions to ISS has found the back pain many astronauts experience appears to be caused by significant muscle atrophy.
The MRI scans indicated significant atrophy of the paraspinal lean muscle mass —which plays a critical role in spinal support and movement—during the astronauts’ time in space. The lean muscle, or “functional,” cross-sectional area of the lumbar paraspinal muscles decreased by an average of 19 percent from preflight to immediate postflight scans. A month or two later, only about two-thirds of the reduction had recovered. There was an even more dramatic reduction in the functional cross-sectional area of the paraspinal muscles relative to total paraspinal cross-sectional area. The ratio of lean muscle decreased from 86 percent preflight to 72 percent immediately postflight. At follow-up, the ratio recovered to 81 percent, but was still less than the preflight value.
In contrast, there was no consistent change in the height of the spinal intervertebral discs. Dr. Chang and coauthors write, “These measurements run counter to previous hypotheses about the effects of microgravity on disc swelling.” Further studies will be needed to clarify the effects on disc height, and whether they contribute to the increase in body height during space missions, and to the increased risk of herniated disc disease.
These results are very encouraging, because they indicate that the back problems seen are mostly attributable to weakened muscles, not actual spinal damage, and can therefore be more easily mitigated by new exercises while in orbit.