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Aviat Space Environ Med. 2008 Apr;79(4):365-73.

Pathophysiology of low back pain during exposure to microgravity.

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  • 1The Ola Grimsby Institute , San Diego, CA, USA.


Astronauts exposed to microgravity frequently report low back pain. This pain is described as moderate to severe in intensity. This condition warrants investigation as low back pain may hinder an astronaut's ability to perform challenging tasks by virtue of disruption of sleep and, subsequently, mental concentration. It is reported by astronauts that a "fetal tuck position" described as knees to chest position relieves back pain. It is possible that the pathogenesis of back pain in microgravity is discogenic (or mechanical) and somatic, referred from the sinuvertebral nerves due to excessive expansion of the lumbar intervertebral discs associated with reduction of gravitational compressive loads in space. The fetal tuck position may increase lumbar intervertebral disc hydrostatic pressure by flexion and transfer of spinal compressive forces toward the anterior region of the lumbar discs, subsequently reducing disc volume. Moreover, this position may reduce Type IV mechanoreceptor facilitation and nerve impulse propagation from the sinuvertebral nerves of the annulus fibrosus, and thus diminish low back pain perception. Elongated posterior soft tissues (apophyseal joint capsules and ligaments) with spinal flexion may potentially stimulate Type I and II mechanoreceptors. This neutralizes substance P in the spinal cord dorsal horn by increasing naturally occurring opioids such as enkephalins. Separately, other investigators have reported a higher incidence of herniated discs (HNP) in astronauts postflight. Further studies of countermeasures are recommended to prevent excessive spinal elongation and disc expansion, reduce low back pain in microgravity, and simulate 1-G disc homeostasis, which may also help prevent HNPs postflight.

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