Does Obesity Cause Back Pain?


Obesity is a serious health concern that’s associated with a number of chronic conditions, but it’s also one of the most common causes of back pain. In addition, being obese can also contribute to symptoms associated with osteoporosis, degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and spondylolisthesis.

How Does Excess Weight Affect the Spine?

Although some of the strongest muscles are found in the back, they can only handle so much weight and strain. For every pound a person weighs, it equals approximately 4 pounds of pressure on the spine, joints, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and muscles. So if someone weighs 200 pounds, for example, they would have 800 pounds of pressure on their spine.

Excess abdominal fat can cause the pelvis and lower back to slant forward over time, creating a permanently arched back, which adds additional strain to the spine. The lower back (lumbar region) is particularly vulnerable to obesity-related back pain. If someone spends a lot of time sitting in a non-neutral position, the back muscles overcompensate—and more issues usually follow.

Beyond back pain, obesity can make existing musculoskeletal conditions (like herniated discs or osteoarthritis) worse and speed up their progression. This is due in part to adipose (fat) tissue causing chronic inflammation, which can lead to soft tissue degeneration. Obese patients who have spinal surgeries also tend to have a higher rate of complication and worse surgical outcomes than those who are at a healthy weight.

People who are obese or have a higher percentage of body fat are:

  • 33% more likely to have lower back pain
  • Up to 43% more likely to have chronic lower back pain
  • 35% more likely to experience severe back pain

Additionally, men are up to 50% more likely to have functional limitations or become disabled, while women are nearly 100% more likely to experience these issues.

To make matters worse, many people who suffer from obesity tend to avoid exercise due to fatigue and shortness of breath; this often contributes to further weakened back muscles and more intense pain. Over time, this can impact the ability to perform everyday tasks. For some patients, simply overcoming the fear of being in pain can be an important step in lessening it.

Am I Obese?

Back pain is strongly associated with BMI (body mass index), which considers one’s weight in relation to their height. Although the system isn’t perfect, it is a relatively good indicator of whether someone is at a healthy weight. According to the BMI, a score between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, while a score of 30 or above is considered obese. Approximately 36% of Americans are obese, and the number is climbing.

However, BMI isn’t the only important factor when assessing weight. It’s also important to look at where fat is stored in the body. Studies have shown that of all the areas that accumulate fat, it’s most harmful to have excess fat on the abdomen. This type of fat gets deposited around the internal organs, where it secretes hormones that are linked to serious health conditions such as metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Tips for Weight Reduction and Back Pain Relief

Before starting any weight loss program, it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional. When you have back pain, gentle, low-impact exercises, like walking or swimming, can help you ease into regular physical activity without straining your back or exacerbating your symptoms. It’s important to realize that some pain is to be expected as your body adjusts.

Other types of exercise you can do include:

  • Total body resistance exercise, which strengthens the major muscle groups
  • Lumbar extension exercise, which focuses on the lower back muscles
  • Pilates
  • Yoga
  • Stretching

Movement and exercise will foster blood flow and offer more relief from pain than things like bed rest or inactivity.

In addition to exercise, eating a healthier diet is an excellent way to lose weight. Focus on regular meals made up of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, lean proteins, and fiber-rich foods (like oats or brown rice) while avoiding foods that are overly processed and high in unhealthy fats. Pay attention to your portion sizes by using smaller plates and bowls. It’s easy to mistake thirst for hunger, so make sure you’re also drinking enough water each day.

Sleep can also affect your weight. When you’re short on sleep, it’s harder to get moving. You feel so tired that you tend to fall back on fast meals of processed foods. Research has shown that a lack of sleep can affect decision-making and impulse control, which can make it harder to make healthy choices. To help your weight loss efforts, aim to get around 7-8 hours of sleep each night.

Get Assistance with Your Weight Loss Journey

Back pain can make weight loss feel more daunting, but taking small steps to increase your activity levels while making other healthy lifestyle choices can help you reach a healthy weight and alleviate pain and discomfort.

If you’re not sure where to start or would like additional support on your weight loss journey, schedule a consultation with Dr. Jennifer Hubert. Dr. Hubert specializes in medical weight loss and takes a customized, holistic approach to her treatment plans. She focuses not only on helping you reach a healthy weight, but also on the prevention and improvement of a full spectrum of adult diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Schedule a consultation today at 707-575-THIN (8446).