The Painful Relationship Between Obesity and Back Problems

30 October 2018

While lower back pain is one of the most common disabilities worldwide, the underlying cause behind back pain is not always cut and dry. Lower back pain is rarely caused by a serious medical condition. It is far more common for back pain to be the result of lifestyle factors, such as activity level, posture, and age. Another factor that’s gaining attention as obesity rates rise around the world is the connection between back pain and weight gain.

Many people who are overweight or obese and experience back pain don’t realize that their excess weight may be causing their back pain. Yet there is a clear relationship between body mass index (BMI) and back pain.

One study found that people at a normal weight had the lowest risk for back pain, while people who are obese had the highest risk for back pain and were the most likely to require medical intervention. Another study conducted in 2017 by University of Tokyo Hospital in Japan reviewed medical data for 1,152 men between 1986 and 2009. The researchers found that a person’s BMI directly correlated to their rate of back problems.

Back Pain and Obesity: What’s the Connection?

While there is general consensus that a connection exists between back pain and obesity, researchers disagree about the causal relationship. Some believe the cause-and-effect is simple: extra weight pushes the pelvis forward, which places more strain on the lower back.

Other researchers believe that explanation is too simplistic, and doesn’t account for differences between people, even those of similar age, weight, and gender. Among this dissenting group, there are two theories.

The first theory is that while obesity does play a role in causing back pain, other related body mechanics also contribute. A 2017 study coordinated by Cornell University evaluated four common back and spine problems to measure their connection to obesity. The four disorders were: lower back pain, spondylosis, internal disc disruption (IDD), and neck problems not caused by IDD or spondylosis.

What they found was that obesity was a strong predictor of lower back pain and IDD, but not the other two conditions. The researchers proposed that in addition to causing more strain on the lower back, an increase of fat tissue may trigger metabolic changes that play as big a role in causing back problems as the weight itself.

The second theory is that weight gain is not a direct cause of back pain, but rather exacerbates or accelerates underlying spinal disorders. According to this theory, if you already have some underlying back issues, excessive weight gain will make them worse.

Weight Loss and Exercise: The Secrets to Relieving Back Pain

Regardless of the “why” or “how” behind the connection between obesity and back pain, the fact is that excessive weight gain is not doing your back any favors. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can help relieve your back pain or help prevent you from developing spine or neck problems in the first place. According to Verywell Health, losing even 10 percent of your body weight could help reverse your back problems.

There are no “magic bullets” when it comes to wellness, but for back pain, the closest thing might be the combination of weight loss and exercise.

A typical weight loss program will include a combination of diet and exercise. Before embarking on any weight loss program, meet with your doctor to discuss your plan and determine a safe approach for your personal weight loss journey. Once you get your doctor’s blessing, you can create your diet and exercise plan.

Exercise is an essential element of any weight loss program, helping to burn calories and replace fat tissue with muscle. However, it has even more benefits for someone with back problems caused by obesity. Not only will exercise accelerate the weight loss process, which will improve back pain symptoms, but exercise helps to strengthen abdominal and back muscles, which supports spine health.

As the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke writes on its website, “Exercise may be the most effective way to speed recovery from low back pain and help strengthen back and abdominal muscles. Maintaining and building muscle strength is particularly important for persons with skeletal irregularities.”

People with pre-existing back problems risk causing further damage to their spine or neck if they aren’t careful, so begin your exercise journey with gentle, low-impact exercises. The best exercises for back pain involve a combination of muscle strengthening and stretching. Walking, swimming, and yoga are all considered ideal activities.

The Outlook for Back Pain Caused by Obesity

There are no quick fixes for either obesity or back pain. But by following a safe, consistent diet and exercise program, you can lose weight and reverse the back problems you developed as a result.