Obesity and Low Back Pain

Obesity and Low Back Pain

It is said that almost 80% of people would suffer from a back pain at some point in their life. Back pain of an episodic nature is one thing, but a chronic back pain can not only degrade one’s life quality but also leads to serious economic damages. If a person already has a chronic back pain, whether a job involves sitting or movement, it can be equally painful in both the cases.

Spine in our body has a unique structure which gives both protection and flexibility at the same time. A series of small bones are connected to each other through a soft cushion like tissue, which constantly bears the impact generated by movements. Physicians have always found it hard to pinpoint the exact causes that lead to chronic low back pain, but an interesting research study conducted in The year 2013 in the United States, measured and assessed the correlation between obesity and low back pain.

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Before delving further into this research, it’s important to set the context on Obesity itself, for which multiple definitions exist. Obesity is medically defined as a condition where the percentage of body fat exceeds 25% of the total body weight in males and 35% in females.  BMI or Body Mass Index is the most common measurement of obesity that takes into account the height and weight of an individual.

Check your BMI

With an Indian body type, any person having a BMI above 30 is categorized as suffering from severe obesity. For instance, take a person with a height of 5 feet and 10 inches, which is equal to 1.78 meters. Let us suppose his weight is 95 kg.

How to Check BMI

Adding any more weight, this person will easily cross into the category of super obese!  While BMI is an important indicator of obesity, but sometimes it can also mislead, as it doesn’t take into account the fact that fat stored in certain parts of the body is not as harmful as others. For instance, the fats stored in the hips and thighs, are not as dangerous as the fat stored in the waist and stomach area. Thus, along with BMI, it is important to measure the waist to hip ratio, known as WHR. A waist to hip ratio of above 0.9 along with a high BMI is a warning bell!

Why? Because, obesity can often lead to multiple other diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart-related ailments, and stroke, joint pain, osteoarthritis, and hypertension. Obesity not only degrades the quality of life one can enjoy, but can also decrease the lifespan of an individual between anywhere from 5 to 20 years.

One of the ways through which Obesity impacts one’s quality of life is by causing various joint related disorders. A joint in our body imparts flexibility required for the movement, but it comes at a cost of a constant wear and tear. Greater body weight naturally implies a higher degree of such wear and tear. Since lower back plays a critical role in the movement, hence bears a lot of stress during movement.

So, coming back to the interesting study we referred to earlier, assessments were made to quantify in real terms as to whether or not, a clear association exists between obesity and low back pain. It has been very hard for physicians to diagnose the exact causes of low back pain, as it can be a result of multiple factors, such as degenerative discs or herniated discs, disc tear, osteoporosis leading to brittle bones and vertebral fractures, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine around the spinal cord) or Scoliosis (abnormal curvature of spine) to name a few.

Till date, the medical fraternity had only listed obesity as one of the factors leading to higher incidence of low back pain. A research published in the “The Spine Journal 14 (2014) 209-216” presented findings that have shown a clear association between obesity and low back pain. Data was gathered for a sample size of over 6000 patients from a cross-section of US population. Key findings suggested that the base line risk for Low Back Pain (LBP) increased gradually along with increased BMI.

  • 9% people at risk of LBP with a normal BMI of 20 – 25
  • 2% people at risk of LBP with overweight BMI of 26 – 30
  • 7% people at risk with obese BMI of 31-35
  • 6% for morbidly obese at 36+

Is low back pain gender specific?

It was also noted that gender did not play a significant role, thus making Obesity a risk factor for both males and females. While the association between increased body weight and incidence of LBP have also been reported by few other studies, there is still no conclusive evidence or research to indicate the exact way through which obesity can lead to a low back pain. The most common hypothesis on how obesity may cause LBP is related to the weight bearing function of the spine. Lower physical activity is also found to be a culprit leading to low back pain, within the same BMI group. That is, for a population that all fall under the normal BMI, a person with lower physical activity is more likely to suffer from a low back pain than otherwise.

While medical research is ongoing to better understand and establish a causative relation between Obesity and low back pain, it is a safe bet to assume that obesity is best avoided for a number of reasons. Several remedial measures can be considered for reducing one’s weight depending on which BMI group a person belongs. It is generally found that unless one has crossed already into the obese or morbidly obese group, a gradual increase in physical activity can lead to not only a sustained weight loss but also stronger bones and healthy joints. This, in turn, can help reduce the risks associated with spinal diseases including the low back pain. However, if a person is already in an obese category, the rigorous physical activity can lead to a greater harm, so it’s very important to consult one’s physician before starting on a weight loss regime involving exercise and diet.

So what’s your BMI? Go ahead, calculate it!

A quick parting note: Smokers within any BMI group were more likely to suffer from a low back pain!

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