Space travel changes the human spine. Chiropractors are experts in dealing with musculoskeletal anatomy and can be helpful consultants to NASA.
How Space Affects the Spine
Astronauts on an 84-day Skylab mission grew significantly taller: “as much as an inch and three quarters”. Our spines are regularly, on Earth, affected by gravity. In outer space, in zero gravity situations, the body “loosens up”, and 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 isn’t 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”, and this causes the disks in the spine to swell, putting pressure on the nerves. Beyond the in-flight situation, many astronauts later return home with herniated disks.2
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 being addressed.3 Dr. John Mayer, DC, PhD was the chiropractic expert consulted on the risk of musculoskeletal injury for astronauts. Dr. Mayer is a supporter of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP), who 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”. This breakdown can 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”.4
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.5 What is learned from astronauts can help people on Earth. Some patients might benefit from the Insight Subluxation Station, “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 the astronauts’ changing spinal muscles. The Insight uses NASA technology, and the Chiropractic Leadership Alliance (CLA) has made this tool commercially available. The Insight equipment is used to measure electrical flow and can help guide chiropractors in diagnosis and treatment.6