How Obesity Can Cause a Herniated Disc and Back Pain

Obesity is one of the factors that can contribute to a herniated disc. There are several reasons for this. Carrying extra weight can lead to pressure on the intervertebral discs, and it can also affect your posture and how you position your spine. Researchers suggest that there might be other factors at play too, such as inflammation or metabolic changes associated with obesity.

If you're overweight, weight loss can often help prevent a herniated disc from occurring, and it can even help resolve a herniated disc in some cases.

A person holds an x-ray of a cervical spine with a person getting checking in the background

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How Obesity Causes Spine Issues

According to Dr. Kevin Cichocki, clinical chiropractor and founder of Palladian Health, alteration in the position of your pelvis and lumbar spine may contribute to the wearing away of outer fibers in the back part of your discs. These outer fibers contain and protect the soft material that is responsible for cushioning and shock absorption in the spine.

Over time, the wear and tear on the fibers can cause problems. "The microscopic radial tears, as they are called, may lead to a complete rupture," says Cichocki. "A rupture of the fibers allows the soft material on the inside to escape and land on a nerve root." This is one of the ways that a herniated disc causes pain. Most herniated discs occur between the side and back of the vertebra.

Obesity Complicates Lumbar Spine Problems

Obesity can interfere with the diagnosis and treatment of spine disease. Sometimes, it can be difficult or impossible to obtain certain imaging tests, such as spine magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) due to weight restrictions. And a physical examination can be less helpful for identifying signs of nerve compression if you are obese. These factors may delay your diagnosis.

Physical therapy and exercise, which helps relieve obesity and spinal disc herniation, can be especially challenging if you are both obese and have a herniated disc. Obesity makes it difficult to move, often causing symptoms like shortness of breath or early fatigue with even minimal exercise.

And the pain of a disc herniation can make it hard to participate in the types of cardiovascular exercise that help achieve weight loss.

Overcoming these limitations is possible, but it may take extra dedication, and it can take time to feel the benefits.

Posture and Disc Position

Obesity is not the only thing that puts pressure on your discs. Your body position greatly influences the health of these shock-absorbing cushions, too. Sitting puts the most pressure, followed by standing. Lying on your back places the least amount of strain on your discs and, depending on your injury, may help relieve symptoms.

Could You Have a Herniated Disc?

While some disc herniations don't cause symptoms, someone with a herniated disc may experience symptoms such as pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling.

The location of symptoms can depend on the location of the herniation. The two most common locations for disc herniation are the cervical spine (neck area) and the lumbar spine (lower back). Disc herniations in the neck can affect the arms; disc herniations in the lower back would affect the buttocks and legs.

See your healthcare provider if you're experiencing any of these symptoms. If your herniated disc causes symptoms, you might be started on 6 weeks of conservative treatment. This can include medications, rest, and physical therapy. In some instances, surgery may be beneficial.

2 Sources
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  1. Sheng B, Feng C, Zhang D, Spitler H, Shi L. Associations between obesity and spinal diseases: A medical expenditure panel study analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Feb 13;14(2):183. doi:10.3390/ijerph14020183

  2. Tokmak M, Altiok IB, Guven M, Aras AB, Cosar M. Spontaneous regression of lumbar disc herniation after weight loss: Case report. Turk Neurosurg. 2015;25(4):657-61. doi:10.5137/1019-5149.JTN.9183-13.1

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.