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NASA taps into USF spinal injury expert Dr. John Mayer

USF spine expert John Mayer, DC, PhD, will be helping NASA gain a better understanding of musculoskeletal injuries of the spine, an issue of concern for astronauts when they return to Earth.

Dr. Mayer, the Lincoln College Endowed Chair in Biomechanical and Chiropractic Research and associate professor in the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences, was asked to join two dozen experts from within NASA and from across the country to study the full effect spaceflight has on injury risk at the Spinal Deconditioning Injury Risk Summit, to be held in June.

Because of the lack of gravity beyond Earth’s atmosphere, every astronaut is subject to possible breakdown of the spine’s musculoskeletal support system, called deconditioning.

“Without proper intervention, astronauts can leave in better physical shape than when they come back,” said Dr. Mayer. “In unweighted environments such as those experienced by astronauts in space, the skeletal muscles, including those that support the spine, begin to atrophy and weaken in a relatively short period of time. When astronauts return, the spine is, therefore, at much greater risk for injury.”

Dr. Mayer said the group, which includes experts from Harvard, Duke, and Georgia Tech, along with NASA scientists, will study what effect spaceflight deconditioning has on injury risk due to dynamic loads and landing forces, and help define possible protection and prevention options. Potential options may include developing new exercises and/or equipment that can be used in microgravity conditions that would prevent those muscles from deteriorating to protect the spine of space crews.

“The results from our meeting and future NASA research initiatives could benefit many other groups, in addition to astronauts, since back pain and injury is one of the leading causes of disability in the general population,” Dr. Mayer said.

Story by Sarah A. Worth, USF Health Office of Communications