Spinal Health

Spinal Health
Left picture by Novespace

The effect of changing gravity on spinal stiffness


Team Gravity of the Integrative Spinal Research Group (ISR)

The Team Gravity, part of the ISR Group at the Balgrist University Hospital, conducts micro- and hypergravity research with the aim of improving spinal health. The ISR group integrates different approaches to investigate the mechanisms underlying acute and chronic back pain: from biomechanics and pain neurophysiology to cortical representations of the spine and their alterations in recurrent pain.


For currently unknown reasons, low back pain occurs in micro-gravity during space flight, impairing the performance of astronauts. Moreover, long-term space flight has been associated with an increased risk of lumbar intervertebral disc (IVD) herniation. Conversely, back pain on Earth often occurs when the spine has to support extra axial loading. The common denominator of these impairments of spinal health might be the effects of changing gravity/load on spinal motor control. Spinal motor control is an intricate system that depends on active structures like muscles and the nervous system, and passive structures like joints and ligaments. Although changing gravity/load ought to impact spinal motor control, this topic has not received much attention in research. Therefore, the Team Gravity investigates spinal health and its relation to motor control mechanisms when the loading of the spine changes in hyper- or micro-gravity and with experimental set-ups on Earth.

Our investigations on the effects of changing gravity conditions and axial load on spinal health are aimed at improving the understanding of stabilization mechanisms of the spine. This research has the potential to develop Readaption-to-Earth rehabilitation programs or programs that improve spine function during activities of daily living in astronauts and in patients with low back pain. The knowledge gained might also help to improve spinal health during and after future longer-term space exploration endeavours.


The team has expertise in (1) spinal stabilization in micro- and hypergravity conditions, (2) lumbar and cervical back pain mechanisms, and (3) prevention and rehabilitation for improving spinal motor control.  The team makes use of parabolic airplane flights. We participated in the 2nd, 3rd Swiss and the 71st ESA Parabolic Flight Campaigns conducting experiments involving 135 parabolas. In addition, several ground-based experiments were performed to prepare or follow up on the results of the Parabolic Flight Campaigns.


Dr. Jaap Swanenburg
Balgrist University Hospital
Integrative Spinal Research ISR
University of Zürich

Balgrist Campus, Lengghalde 5, CH-8008 Zürich
Tel: +41 44 510 73 82

Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tuw4P7Odc-U

Video: The Effect of Changing Gravity on Spinal Stiffness