The Downside of Being an Astronaut

Many astronauts suffer from disabling low back pain when in space and are more vulnerable to back pain and injury when they return to earth, according to some new research.

The research –was presented recently at the annual meeting of the Orthopaedic Research Society by Britta Berg-Johansen from the UC San Francisco Orthopaedic Bioengineering Laboratory.

Berg-Johansen said that the zero-gravity environment of space can wreak havoc on human physiology. As she explained it, “Without gravity loading, spinal discs swell, trunk muscles atrophy, and vertebrae become osteoporotic. This creates a triple jeopardy for astronauts and a major hurdle for future long-duration space travel, such as planned missions to Mars”

The UC San Francisco team has been working with mouse-astronauts (mousetronauts?). After a 30 day space mission, the mice exhibited reduced spine bending strength and flexibility as well as significant bone loss compared to mice in a control group.

“Our research indicates that bone loss and spinal stiffening during spaceflight may contribute to the increased herniation risk in astronauts,” said Berg-Johansen.

The team hopes to find out how bone loss, disc stiffening, and other tissue differences such as muscle atrophy contribute to disc herniation risk in human spines.

“Our hope,” says Berg-Johansen, “is that our data will have importance for improving rehabilitation protocols such as avoiding heavy lifting activities and excessive spinal movements as astronauts acclimate to gravity after returning to Earth.”

It’s just another way in which things learned in space can have applications back on earth – for mice and men.

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