I've arrived on Mars. Argggh, my back!

NASA's spine-tingling experiments spell bad news for astronauts

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Astronaut on mars . Photo by shutterstock

New research brings more bad news to astronauts thinking about long-haul space flights as spinal muscles shrink after months in space, scientists have found.

Floating around in space in an environment with little or no gravity is not good for the human body. Along with decreased bone density, nausea, a puffy face, possible cognitive deterioration, an astronaut’s back starts to weaken too.

The research is part of NASA’s wider project to study the physical effects space has on the body to prepare for long-haul flights to Mars.

Results from the NASA-funded research have been published in Spine, and show spinal damage persists months after the astronauts return to Earth.

Six NASA crew members were subjected to MRI scans before and after spending four to seven months floating around the microgravity conditions of the International Space Station.

The scans showed the astronauts had significant atrophy of the paraspinal lean muscle, the mass of which decreased from 86 per cent of the total paraspinal muscle cross-sectional area down to 72 per cent after the mission. When the astronauts had been on terra firma for one to two months, only about two-thirds of the lost muscle mass had recovered.

Space travellers often complain of lower back pain, as the lack of weight on the lower back causes the spine to stretch two inches, and are at increased risk of suffering from slipped discs.

To counteract the physical strains of space, core-strengthening exercises and yoga may have to be incorporated into an astronaut's daily routines. But how effective exercise is as a countermeasure still needs to be studied, the researchers concluded.

"Above all this science, what I find is the most unique aspect about space research is the inspiration, curiosity and excitement generated in nearly everyone I talk to in terms of overcoming personal challenges, questioning our place in the universe, and addressing change here at home,” said Dr Douglas Chang, lead author of the paper and chief at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation centre at University of California, San Diego. ®

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