Space missions cause crippling back pain that can last for four YEARS

Fresh blow for Mars missions as researchers find long-duration space travel causes crippling back pain that can last for up to four YEARS

  • Study examined astronauts who spend several months on the ISS
  • Found significant reductions in the size and density of key muscles in their spine 
  • Effects of the mission lingered for up to four years  
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Plans for long duration missions to send astronaut to the moon and Mars have been dealt a fresh blow by a study into long term health in zero gravity. 

Astronauts who spend several months on the International Space Station have significant reductions in the size and density of key muscles in their spine after returning to Earth, reports a study in Spine.

It adds to an ever growing list of major health problems those who undertake long term missions would face.

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Astronauts who spend several months on the International Space Station have significant reductions in the size and density of key muscles in their spine after returning to Earth, reports a study in Spine. Pictured, British astronaut Major Tim Peake


Deep space travel could leave astronauts terminally ill, new research suggests.

Experts believe radiation exposure on long-distance, intergalactic trips could significantly damage their stomachs and intestines.

This is likely to result in long-term functional impairments, such as ineffective nutrient absorption, or cancer.

Scientists made the discovery after exposing mice to low doses of electrically charged iron particles, one of the most harmful forms of galactic cosmic radiation (GCR).


The changes in muscle composition are still present up to four years after long-duration spaceflight, according to the new research by Katelyn Burkhart, MS, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues. 

They write, ‘Spaceflight-induced changes in paraspinal muscle morphology may contribute to back pain commonly reported in astronauts.’  

The researchers analyzed computed tomography (CT) scans of the lumbar (lower) spine in 17 astronauts and cosmonauts who flew missions on the International Space Station. 

Scans obtained before and after missions were analyzed to determine changes in the size and composition of the paraspinal muscles. 

Average time in space was six months.

Previous studies of astronauts have linked spaceflight to muscle atrophy, especially of the muscles that maintain posture and stability while upright on Earth in normal gravity. 

Many astronauts experience low back pain during and immediately after space missions, and they appear to be at increased risk of spinal disc herniation.

The new study found that most at risk are the paraspinal muscles, which run up and down the spine and play a key role in spinal movement and posture. 

Previous studies have found reduced paraspinal muscle mass after prolonged time in space, suggesting that muscle atrophy may occur without the resistance provided by gravity.

The CT scans showed reductions in the size of paraspinal muscles after spaceflight.

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For individual muscles, muscle size decreased by 4.6 to 8.8 percent.    

In follow-up scans performed one year later, size returned at least to normal for all muscles, but showed significant increases in the amount of fatty tissue present in the paraspinal muscles. 

Accordingly, the astronauts’ muscle density, which is inversely related to fat content, decreased by 5.9 to 8.8 percent. 

For most muscles, composition returned to normal by one year.

However, for two muscles – the quadratus lumborum and psoas muscles – fat content remained above pre-flight values even two to four years after the astronaut returned from space.  

Some of the paraspinal muscle changes seem to be affected by exercise, suggesting possible approaches to preventing the adverse effects of prolonged spaceflight on spinal health and functioning. 

Ms. Burkhart and coauthors conclude, ‘As NASA plans for future missions to Mars and beyond, these results can be used to guide future countermeasures to mitigate declines in trunk muscle morphology and associated functional deficits.’


After 340 days aboard the International Space Station, American astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth in March 2016.

Nasa has since undertaken tests to study the effects living in orbit had on Kelly using his identical twin brother Mark – who remained on Earth – as a control subject.

The Kelly brothers have nearly identical genomes, allowing for an unprecedented look at the physical effects of long-term spaceflight.

While astronaut Scott Kelly (right) lived aboard the International Space Station for 340 days, his identical twin brother Mark (left) remained on Earth – and researchers have now found a number of differences between the two

Blood and other biological samples were collected from the pair before, during, and after Scott Kelly’s mission.

The agency found that Kelly came home 5 cm (2 inches) taller than his twin – a change had resolved itself within two days of his return.

The height difference was caused by the ISS’ microgravity conditions which elongate the spine – but the effect was only temporary. 

Nasa found that while 93 per cent of Kelly’s genes returned to normal shortly after returning home, seven per cent were permanently altered.

These long-term changes hit genes related to the immune system, DNA repair, bone formation and the ways his tissues take up oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Kelly’s telomeres – the caps at the end of each chromosome – lengthened while in space.

Telomeres are key to protecting DNA from damage and tend to shorten with age. Kelly’s telomeres shortened again once he was back on Earth.

Scientists reported their preliminary results at a meeting for Nasa’s Human Research Program in January 2017. Pictured are some of the areas studied by the team

Nasa says that Kelly’s lengthening telomeres are linked with his diet and exercise routine on the station.

The ratio of two groups of gut bacteria shifted while Kelly was in space, likely due to his change in diet. This also returned to normal shortly after his return. 

Nasa research has spotted hundreds of diverging genetic mutations in Kelly and Mark’s genomes.

The research team speculate that a ‘space gene’ could have been activated while Kelly was in orbit.


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