A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

True or false: Bloated belly equals aching back

Illustration - How belly fat can cause back painChronic back pain affects many of us at some point in our lives. Perhaps just as many people look in the mirror and feel the need to shed a few pounds. If you fall into both categories, here is some good news: You may be able to kill two birds with one stone by losing weight.

What’s the relationship between an aching back and belly fat?

“Being overweight doesn’t necessarily directly cause back pain, but there is research to support that being overweight increases your risk for low back pain,” said Dr. Andrea Peterson, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Marshfield Clinic.

More weight around the midsection strains your back and may increase the arch of your lower back. Too much weight in the stomach area also can accelerate lumbar degenerative disc disease. This is a disease in which disks in the back wear down and lose some of their ability to act as shock absorbers between vertebrae.

It’s all connected

Excess weight is related to back pain for some people, but that’s just one factor in the back pain equation.

“Back pain can result from a strained muscle, or it could involve the joints, discs or nerves in the back,” Peterson said. “A majority of the time, it’s a combination of factors that contribute to low back pain.”

Excess weight can intensify back pain stemming from muscle strain, joint issues and disc pressure to a level the pain would not have reached in a person who is not overweight.

“When you are overweight, there is more stress on the lumbar spine, which can create increased arch in the low back. This negatively impacts posture with increased muscle tightness in the legs, which can increase pressure in the knees, ankles and feet. It’s all interconnected,” Peterson said.

Core exercises can help

Weight loss through exercise and diet is an obvious solution to weight-related back pain. However, strengthening your core is just as important. Dr. Peterson encourages core strengthening exercises to build muscle and better support the spine.

Peterson noted that some patients struggle to do exercises because of their back pain. In those instances, Peterson recommends being active in any way possible.

“In those cases, we may resort to aquatic exercises, which patients may be able to tolerate better,” Peterson said. “I always encourage people to approach weight loss slowly. Going for a slow walk or riding on a stationary bike with low resistance can help.”

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