Disability and back pain symptoms linked to excess weight

Jul 19 2011
A report published in the journal Spine by Donna M. Urquhart, PhD, Patricia B. Berry, BiomedSci (Hons) and seven other experts covered the results of their study on low back pain intensity, disability and fat or lean tissue mass.

A total of 135 people of varying weights and ages from 25 to 62 years old participated in the research, answering questions about their exercise habits in the previous two weeks, the intensity of their chronic low back pain over the previous six months and the degree of low back pain disability they had suffered during that same period.

The study also measured factors including height, weight and body composition. Specifically, researchers examined how much lean and fat tissue mass each participant had in their body, both total and by regions like upper and lower limbs. This allowed them to account for the type of tissue and its distribution.

Lean tissue mass didn't seem to be associated with either pain intensity or disability in any significant way, but the amount of fat tissue and its distribution were both relevant.

The average body fat mass was higher in participants who reported disability and low back pain, both in total and in specific regions like the lower limbs. Men and women had similar results, with lower limb body fat and total body fat showing the strongest relationship to low back pain intensity. The results for disability were similar, with higher body fat associated with disability in both men and women.

Researchers concluded that more study is needed to confirm the relationship between fat body tissue and low back pain and disability, but suggested that the presence of excess fat might be a significant factor because of how it affects metabolism, or due to the increased burden in places on the spine.

Previous studies looked at the body weight, the body mass index (which is meant to measure body fat by using height and weight) or the waist-to-hip ratio, making this study an exception because it differentiated lean and fat body mass.

The report's authors stated that more research with larger numbers of participants and more variations in how much back pain and disability they experience may determine whether the amount of fat tissue can be used to predict back pain and disability. They also suggested that figuring out the relationship between fat tissue and low back disability and pain might help with finding effective back pain treatments.

Back pain is common enough to affect eight out of every 10 people, but can have various causes and contributing factors. If obesity contributes to back pain (or its intensity), then it is likely to become a growing problem for many Americans, since obesity has increased significantly in the past two decades. In 1995, no state had an obesity rate of 20 percent or higher, whereas in 2010 Colorado had the lowest obesity rate in the country at 20.1 percent.