How Space Affects the Spine
Space travel changes the structure of the human spine. Astronauts on an 84-day Skylab mission grew significantly taller as a part of the effects of the mission. Their spines lengthened “as much as an inch and three quarters”. Chiropractors are experts in the field of dealing with musculoskeletal anatomy and ailments which might afflict it. Therefore, chiropractors can be helpful consultants to NASA.
Gravity’s Effect on the Spine
On Earth, gravity regularly affects our spines. Gravity is what keeps everything grounded. It is constantly pulling the body downwards and creating a compression in the spine to some extent. In outer space, or in other zero gravity situations, the body “loosens up.” As a result of this, the distance between discs of the spine can expand. Of course, returning to Earth resumes the gravitational pull, and height eventually becomes normalized for the astronauts.¹ Despite the fact that gravity from the Earth or any other planet is not always pulling on the astronauts, they are actually at risk for having herniated disks. There are many astronauts who suffer from severe back pain. “During spaceflight, microgravity changes the loading placed on the spine”.²
Originally, the cause of the pain was thought to be that the disks in the spine would swell, putting pressure on the nerves. In 2016, NASA conducted a study to find out whether or not this was what happened. The study found the original idea not to be true. While the cartilage joints, or discs, did not change their shape, the study found that the paraspinal muscles which act as the connection between the bones of the spine did. The research found that the paraspinal muscles have shrunk by about nineteen percent of their original size.³ Beyond the in-flight situation, many astronauts later return home with herniated disks. Being an astronaut is a tough profession, so any professional care that they receive is of high importance.4
Chiropractor Consults with NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) requested a chiropractor’s opinion on spaceflight and spines. The Spinal Deconditioning Injury Risk Summit received the chiropractic input. Flight weight, microgravity exposure, and landing force were the concerns they are addressing.5
NASA consulted the chiropractic expert Dr. John Mayer, DC, PhD on the risk of musculoskeletal injury for astronauts. Dr. Mayer is a supporter of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP). He promotes the idea that “chiropractic care represents advancement in prevention and protection protocols”. Dr. Mayer noted that “deconditioning” is a serious problem. Deconditioning is the “breakdown of the spine’s musculoskeletal support system”. When this breakdown occurs, it can then lead to other health problems, with disk herniation being the primary concern. Mayer stated that herniation is “an ailment space crews are five times more at risk for than average individuals”. It is the hope that NASA will be able to work to “counteract spinal deterioration in space crews”.6
How Chiropractic Could Help
Dr. Mayer suggested that astronauts could benefit from safety measures such as new equipment, varied exercise procedures, and other healthcare practices. He noted that chiropractic musculoskeletal care could reduce the injury risk that is posed by the many physical demands astronauts face.7
In fact, what is learned from the type of care that astronauts receive can even help the people who never leave Earth. Some patients might benefit from the Insight Subluxation Station. This is “a neurospinal screening and evaluation system that uses surface electromyography (SEMG) technology”. Specifically, it “measures skin temperature…the sensitivity of…tissues and assesses range-of-motion, and heart rate… to create visual images.” This technology was actually used to measure and study the astronauts’ changing spinal muscles. The Insight uses NASA technology. Thankfully, the Chiropractic Leadership Alliance (CLA) has made this tool commercially available to the general public and chiropractors who do not work with astronauts. The Insight equipment measures electrical flow and can help guide many chiropractors in diagnosis and treatment.8
Yoga in Space
Another way to prevent the loss of muscle in the spine during space travel is for the astronaut patients to engage in yoga stretches. Astronauts do not use the muscles as often in space, leading to degradation. On Earth, the muscle tone in the lower back is used in bending and support, something that is unnecessary in space. Yoga, which pulls and works the muscles could help avert this muscular atrophy.
Astronauts already have two- or three-hour workouts that utilize special machines. These machines provide the resistance that is lost without gravity that they must perform on the space station every day. The exercises are often focused on cardiovascular and skeletal health. And it is thought that the addition of a core-strengthening program that focuses on the spine is necessary. NASA would need to install new equipment that could account for the technical aspect of the space station to make up for the lack of gravity. This is a key part of yoga’s effectiveness.9
2, 4 http://www.chirohosting.com/chiropractic/2013/back-pain-in-outer-space-astronauts-at-risk-of-herniated-discs/
6, 7 http://hscweb3.hsc.usf.edu/blog/2012/08/13/usfs-john-mayer-joins-expert-panel-addressing-health-concerns-of-nations-astronauts/