Space travel: how does zero gravity affect the joints of astronauts?

An image to illustrate zero gravity space travel
© ESA

Henry Ford Hospital studied the effects of zero gravity on mice aboard a Russian spaceflight. It raises the question of whether space travel is bad for the joints of astronauts.

The researchers found early signs of cartilage breakdowns in the mice, suggesting that  the reduced biomechanical forces in space travel can affect the musculoskeletal system. Could  astronauts experience problems with their joints in future space travel due to zero gravity?

The effects of zero gravity on mice

Jamie Fitzgerald, Ph.D., the head of musculoskeletal genetics at Henry Ford’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery and his research team analysed cartilage changes in mice that were put in animal research enclosures aboard an unmanned Russian Bion-M1 spacecraft for thirty days.

The results were compared to mice observed on Earth during the same time period.

Mice were carried in this animal enclosure during spaceflight.
© Institute for Biomedical Problems, Moscow

Would this affect human astronauts?

Dr Fitzerald commented: “We believe this degradation is due to joint unloading caused by the near lack of gravity in space. If this were to happen to humans, given enough time, it would lead to major joint problems.”

Fitzgerald explained: “We do know that tissues of the musculoskeletal system – bone, muscle, tendon, cartilage and ligament – are constantly subjected to ‘loading’ everywhere on Earth. This comes from daily activities like walking and lifting, and the action of gravity pulling down on the musculoskeletal system. When that loading is removed due to weightlessness and near zero gravity in space, these tissues begin to degrade. The most dramatic example is the atrophy of muscle and demineralization of bones that occurs during spaceflight.”

“This muscle and bone loss are reversed when the astronauts return to Earth. What is interesting about cartilage is that it’s a tissue that repairs very poorly. This raises the important question of whether cartilage also degrades in space.”

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