Real-time Ultrasound Assessment of Astronaut Spinal Anatomy and Disorders on the International Space Station

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Journal of ultrasound in medicine : official journal of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine


OBJECTIVES: Back pain is one of the most common conditions of astronauts during spaceflight and is hypothesized to be attributed to pathologic anatomic changes. Ultrasound (US) represents the only available imaging modality on the International Space Station, but a formal US protocol for imaging the structures of the spinal column does not exist. This investigation developed a method of acquiring diagnostic-quality images of the anterior lumbar and cervical regions of the spine during long-duration spaceflight.

METHODS: Comprehensive spinal US examinations were conducted on 7 long-duration spaceflight astronauts before flight, in flight, and after flight and compared to preflight and postflight magnetic resonance imaging data. In-flight scans were conducted after just-in-time training assisted by remote expert tele-US guidance.

RESULTS: Novice users were able to obtain diagnostic-quality spinal images with a 92.5% success rate. Thirty-three anomalous or pathologic findings were identified during the preflight US analysis, and at least 14 new findings or progressions were identified during the postflight US analysis. Common findings included disk desiccation, osteophytes, and qualitative changes in the intervertebral disk height and angle.

CONCLUSIONS: Ultrasound has proven efficacy as a portable and versatile diagnostic imaging modality under austere conditions. We demonstrated a potential role for US to evaluate spinal integrity and alterations in the extreme environment of space on the International Space Station. Further investigations should be performed to corroborate this imaging technique and to create a larger database related to in-flight spinal conditions during long-duration spaceflight.

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Astronauts; Female; Humans; Male; Middle Aged; Space Flight; Spinal Diseases; Spine; Time Factors; Ultrasonography

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