Could Weight Gain Be the Cause of Your Back Pain?

Could Weight Gain Be the Cause of Your Back Pain?

If your belly enters a room seconds before you do, chances are you’re on a first-name basis with Chief Aching Back. In the past 20 years, the incidence of obesity has tripled and complaints about back pain have doubled. Could trimming your bulging middle (or backside) prevent those “gotta lie down” back-pain symptoms? Find out why staying active helps relieve chronic back pain.

Two new studies say yes—and the back-saving benefits of a flat belly and trim hips go beyond easing muscle pain. Body fat is a demolition derby for your backbone’s discs. Staying slim keeps the gel-filled cushions that act as your spine’s shock absorbers out of harm’s way.

Extra pounds increase the load on your spine, taxing your muscles and dumping pressure on the soft tissue around your vertebrae. That can exaggerate the natural curve of your lower back, throwing off your spine’s alignment and causing chronic lower-back pain. Also, belly fat pumps out inflammatory chemicals that weaken discs. Add sitting for long periods and here comes the need for pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or more serious back-pain treatments. Walk this way to ease lower-back pain.

Today, one in nine people has back trouble that compromises everyday living, interrupts steady work and tosses a monkey wrench into satisfying relationships (movin' and groovin' doesn't go so smoothly with a bad back). Furthermore, 80 percent of adults—and a growing number of kids—get back pain once in a while. Overweight kids are twice as likely as Slim Jims (and Janes) to have early signs of disc disease—putting them on track for serious back problems down the road.

So, before you order that mega-muffin and caramel mochaccino with whipped cream and chocolate drizzle, here’s what’s to know about the body-fat-bad-back connection:

More weight equals more pain. Carrying enough extra pounds to classify you as “overweight” (e.g., 155 to 185 pounds if you’re a 5-foot, 6-inch woman) boosts your odds for back pain by 20 percent. Obesity (i.e., more than 185 pounds for the same height) doubles or triples the risk. But losing just 4 pounds takes 16 pounds of pressure off your spine.

More weight equals more damage. In a new study from Hong Kong (the obesity problem is worldwide), scans of 2,599 women and men revealed that piling on pounds increases the risk for degenerative disc disease (or, DDD, as we docs call it) by 30 percent to 79 percent. DDD sets you up for a slipped or ruptured disc, which puts pressure on nerves. Then there’s spine-tingling numbness and weakness in your legs and, oh yea, plenty of back pain. Often, DDD heals within 6 months, but a whopping one in 10 with triple-D ends up needing back surgery. Try these exercises for a healthy spine.

Also, try these steps to soothe a sore back:

  • Move more. Walk, swim, bike or shake it in your local Zumba class. Physical activity helps control weight. Adding strength-building moves does even more, keeping your core strong to better support your spine.
  • Learn to lift. Lifting the wrong way is a leading cause of sudden back injuries. The right way: Bend your knees, hold the object close to your body, tighten your stomach muscles and lift with your legs. Don’t twist or lift heavy stuff higher than your waist.
  • Sit smart. Don’t slouch. Keep shoulders back and in line with your hips, and your feet flat on the floor. Your knees should be bent about 90 degrees. Tuck a small pillow or special lumbar support behind your lower back.
  • Get up. If you’re sitting down, stand up every 20 minutes or so. Walk around your office or living room. Move your arms. Any motion draws fresh, oxygen-rich fluid into your spine’s discs, keeping your back healthier. Find out how fidgeting can do a body good.

Ready to strike a pose? Discover how certain yoga moves can help relieve back pain.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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