One of the most under-appreciated benefits of maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced, nutritious diet is avoiding debilitating lower back pain. It’s not just pain, either. The lower spine is the site where the largest and longest nerve in the body originates – the sciatic nerve. Compression of this nerve produces the set of symptoms commonly known as sciatica. These symptoms affect the lower back, the buttocks, the legs, the feet, and the toes. For example, a persistent sharp or shooting pain down the outside of one leg is often sciatica. So, too, is tingling or numbness in the toes of one foot, or a loss of weakness in one thigh muscle. All of this can shut down your ability to enjoy life, and all of it is far more likely to happen if you carry extra weight.
Anatomy of the Spine
Why does carrying extra weight – especially around the midsection – pose a significant threat to the stability of the lower back? Because the lumbar (lower back) region of the spine supports the bulk of the weight of the upper body, while also allowing for a wide range of motion such as bending and twisting. The spinal anatomy in that region is under particular stress, and is therefore more susceptible to the wear and tear associated with the aging process. Extra weight only serves to exacerbate the problem.
But what does that mean, exactly? The stacked vertebrae within the lumbar region are home to the upper reaches of the sciatic nerve. As the body ages, the joints where the vertebrae articulate (facet joints) begin to lose their cartilaginous coating, threatening spinal stability. The body responds to the loss of stability in joints by producing osteophytes (bone spurs), which can threaten to impinge or irritate nearby nerves or the spinal cord itself. In addition, the intervertebral discs (sponge-like cushions between vertebrae) begin to lose elasticity, becoming brittle. Eventually, a disc or discs could begin to lose height or rupture.
Why Obesity is a Problem
These degenerative spine problems are generally worse in people who suffer from obesity. There are several reasons for this. To start with, the extra weight carried by people with obesity generates far more strain on the spine’s bones, joints, cartilage, discs, and ligaments. Naturally, the more you ask your body’s joints and other non-muscular structures to do, the faster they will wear down. And carrying extra weight only makes the job of the joints and other anatomical components that much more difficult.
Also, people who are obese tend to have other physical trouble, such as poor circulation, respiratory issues, or a buildup of arterial plaque. These issues might be hereditary, but they also are often a result of poor dietary choices or a sedentary lifestyle.
How to Combat the Problem
Of course, as anyone who has battled weight problems for an extended period of time can tell you, setting the goal of maintaining a healthy weight and actually doing so are two different things entirely. That said, there are steps you can take to mitigate or avoid the potentially damaging effect of obesity on the anatomy of the spine.
Start by having a conversation about the topic with your primary care physician. Explain that in addition to potential heart and respiratory problems, you would like to treat or avoid debilitating back pain associated with obesity. He or she will likely lay out a plan for exercising and eating a healthy diet in order to help you reach a manageable, sustainable body weight.