Soldiers: Serving your country is killing your back

Soldiers: Serving your country is killing your back

Soldiers serving their country in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan routinely carry between 50 and 100 pounds of gear such as body armor, weapons, flack vests, rucksacks, and ammo. This weight is directly affecting their spine and increasing spine related problems for military men and women.   Carrying gear weighing over 10% of a persons body weight is known to cause damage to the spine and vertebral discs. It is no surprise that the main complaint from soldiers returning home would be neck & back pain, followed by hip and knee problems. The VA has seen over 396,000 veterans already for these musculoskeletal problems, which is roughly 31% of the returning soldiers. It is assumed many more have not sought medical care or have gone to private medical center.

Your spine has a maximum load restriction

The spine is designed to hold a person up right, and to allow freedom of movement and function. Just like any structure there are “maximum load restrictions”. When we increase the weight placed on the spine by more than 10% of our normal body weight it begins to stress and degenerate the vertebral discs that act like the shock absorbers between the spinal vertebrae. If these discs become worn and degenerated the spine can no longer function correctly. Compensation and adaptation sets into the spine and other structures such as the hips, knees, and muscles of the back.

Posture Distortion Patterns degenerate the Spine and cause back pain.

Additionally when we have this excess amount of weight on our spines we are often put into compromising postural positions to balance this weight. This causes the postural distortions patterns, which are known to degenerate the spine and cause back pain. Soldiers are trained to handle extreme situations. They are “mentally tough” and physically fit, however the spine can’t be trained to withstand these extreme loads. Forcing ones body to maintain extreme stress and weight bearing begins to slowly deteriorate the spine.

Soldier or Civilian carrying excess weight will damage your spine

Although the soldier may be tough enough to deal with the pain and stress during their younger years, as they age and become more elderly, these traumas to the spine often debilitate this once mighty soldier, often reducing them to canes, wheel chairs, and in some cases in ability to even get out of bed. The pain is traumatic and the damage is done. Soldiers often experience the most extreme situation in excess weight bearing, however, many of our population is suffering from the same thing. According to the Center for Disease Control 70% of adults are overweight with 35% being considered obese. This excess weight in the form of fat is placing the same stress on societies spines as well.

Anyone carrying 15 pounds or more is prone to an increased chance of spinal disease.   This could be a backpack, military gear, or body fat. Carrying excess weight for long periods of time damages the spine. To know for sure if you are developing these postural distortion patterns get a Posture Diagnosis Online from the American Posture Institute.

6 Tips to Stop Killing Your Spine


  • Reduce the amount of weight carried.
    1. This is the most obvious way to change this problem. If possible reduce the amount of weight you carry. Make purses, bags, and etc. lighter. Soldiers, look for options to reduce your load, or exchange items with lighter options.
  • Evenly distribute and support extra weight
    1. When carrying extra weight always evenly distribute the weight on your body. Use two straps, one on both shoulders. Try to keep the weight as high up on the back as possible to reduce the stress on the low back. When possible use hip straps/support to help distribute the weight.
  • Always maintain correct posture when carrying excess weight.
    1. When carrying excess weight it is crucial to stay in proper posture. Allowing your self to go into incorrect postural position increases the stress on the muscles that protect your spine. Too much stress and these muscles give out and your spine takes the damage.


  • Strengthen your spinal postural muscles
    1. Do core exercises to strengthen the postural muscles that support the spine. Planking is an excellent exercise. Lay with your chest on the floor. Support your body weight on your toes and your elbows/forearms. Lift your body off the ground and maintain this position as long as possible.
  • Lose excess body fat.
    1. Reducing extra body weight removes stress from the spine and pressure from the vertebral discs.

Spinal Alignment

  • Spinal distraction
    1. This is a great therapy that can be done at home to help relieve the stress on the vertebral discs.   Lay with your upper body on a bed or soft surface. Let your legs hang off. The surface needs to be high enough that your knees don’t touch the ground. Allow gravity to pull your lower body down, which will expand the space between the vertebrae and allow the discs to return to a normal position.


  1. Loads worn by soldiers predict episodes of low back pain during deployment to Afghanistan. Roy TC1, Lopez HP, Piva SR. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 Jul 1;38(15):1310-7. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e31829265c4.
  1. Center for Disease Control. FastStats.



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