How does my being overweight affect my spine?

The potential complications that can arise from being overweight are well known. Obesity can lead to an increased risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, various types of cancer, liver and kidney disease, and more. Being overweight can also lead to issues that include sleep apnea, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, and others.

In addition to these health issues, carrying around extra weight can have a significant impact on your spine health. The spine is tasked with keeping your entire upper body in alignment and maintaining correct posture to prevent injuries. If you are overweight, your spine is forced to support additional weight, and this weight is often distributed towards the front of the body, forcing the spine out of its natural position and increasing disc compression.

What is Lordosis?

The spine is designed to curve inwards at the bottom in the lumbar spine, outwards in the middle thoracic spine, and then inwards again in the top cervical section. The inward curves are defined as having a lordotic shape, and the outward curve of the thoracic spine is defined as having a kyphotic curve. When the spine is able to maintain its correct curvatures, which is known as its neutral position, it is able to be most effective in supporting the body throughout various movements.

Lordosis is most commonly seen in the lower back, and it occurs when the lumbar spine becomes overly curved inwards. If this issue becomes even worse, it is known as hyperlordosis. One of the reasons that this issue can occur is due to being overweight. Many times, extra weight is carried in the stomach area, drawing the body’s center of gravity slightly forward.

This forward shift causes the hip bones to tilt slightly forward, known as an anterior pelvic tilt. This also forces the lumbar spine to bend slightly more inward. This excessive inward bend can place additional pressure on the spinal discs themselves and the muscles in the lower back required to support the spine and that allow for bending and twisting motions.

What Spinal Issues can Occur?

Two of the most common spinal injuries that can happen due to being overweight are spinal osteoarthritis and degenerating or herniated spinal discs from disc compression. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage between the vertebrae in the spine become worn down. This process happens naturally over time, but can be accelerated if the joints in the spine are misaligned or if there is increased pressure on the cartilage. Excess weight can contribute to both of these issues.

Degenerating or herniated discs can also be caused by obesity. In between each of the vertebrae of the spine is a disc. These discs are composed of a tough, fibrous outer layer and are filled with a thick liquid. This design allows them to act as cushions to prevent the bony vertebrae from rubbing against one another and to resist compression forces.

Over time, the outer layer of these discs can begin to dry out and crack. This degeneration can result in the fluid leaking out or dissolving, reducing the ability of the discs to resist compression and causing the bones to rub against each other with certain movements. Herniation is a similar process in which the fluid pushes through a crack in the outer casing.

Extra weight forces the intervertebral discs to deal with increased compression each and every day. This can cause the discs to break down more quickly, which can accelerate the degeneration process. The increased curvature of the spine can also place more stress on the posterior, or rear, parts of the vertebral discs, increasing the risk of herniation.

Can Weight Make Existing Back Conditions Worse?

In addition to increasing the risk of a new injury, many studies have also shown that being overweight can have a significant impact on back injuries that are already present. One study found that obesity worsened a number of spinal conditions, including disc herniation, arthritis in the spine, and the hardening of the ligaments surrounding the spine.

What Other Issues can Arise?

Back pain can be debilitating, and treatment options are limited outside of surgical procedures. One of the most common methods of treatment is through the use of pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals can include a wide range of prescription medications, and many of the available options are highly addictive and can result in a number of other health issues if they are used for long periods of time.

One of the best ways to reduce back pain, especially if you are overweight or obese, is to lose some of the excess bodyweight. This can reduce much of the stress placed on the spine and help correct any postural and alignment issues. A major component of weight loss is often exercise, and strengthening the muscles of the back, hips, and abdomen can also help to alleviate stress on the back and promote a better overall posture.

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