Lumbar spine paraspinal muscle and intervertebral disc height changes in astronauts after long-duration spaceflight on the International Space Station

Douglas G. Chang, Robert M. Healey, Alexander J. Snyder, Jojo V. Sayson, Brandon R. Macias, Dezba G. Coughlin, Jeannie F. Bailey, Scott E. Parazynski, Jeffrey C. Lotz, Alan R. Hargens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


Study Design. Prospective case series. Objective. Evaluate lumbar paraspinal muscle (PSM) crosssectional area and intervertebral disc (IVD) height changes induced by a 6-month space mission on the International Space Station. The long-term objective of this project is to promote spine health and prevent spinal injury during space missions and here on Earth. Summary of Background Data. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) crewmembers have a 4.3 times higher risk of herniated IVDs, compared with the general and military aviator populations. The highest risk occurs during the first year after a mission. Microgravity exposure during longduration spaceflights results in approximately 5 cm lengthening of body height, spinal pain, and skeletal deconditioning. How the PSMs and IVDs respond during spaceflight is not well described. Methods. Six NASA crewmembers were imaged supine with a 3 Tesla magnetic resonance imaging. Imaging was conducted preflight, immediately postflight, and then 33 to 67 days after landing. Functional cross-sectional area (FCSA) measurements of the PSMs were performed at the L3-4 level. FCSA was measured by grayscale thresholding within the posterior lumbar extensors to isolate lean muscle on T2-weighted scans. IVD heights were measured at the anterior, middle, and posterior sections of all lumbar levels. Repeated measures analysis of variance was used to determine significance at P<0.05, followed by post-hoc testing. Results. Paraspinal lean muscle mass, as indicated by the FCSA, decreased from 86% of the total PSM cross-sectional area down to 72%, immediately after the mission. Recovery of 68% of the postflight loss occurred during the next 6 weeks, still leaving a significantly lower lean muscle fractional content compared with preflight values. In contrast, lumbar IVD heights were not appreciably different at any time point. Conclusion. The data reveal lumbar spine PSM atrophy after long-duration spaceflight. Some FCSA recovery was seen with 46 days postflight in a terrestrial environment, but it remained incomplete compared with preflight levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1917-1924
Number of pages8
Issue number24
StatePublished - Dec 15 2016


  • Aerospace medicine
  • Atrophy
  • Back pain
  • Immobilization
  • Intervertebral disc
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Muscles
  • Paraspinal muscles
  • Spine
  • Weightlessness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology


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