Chronic back pain is both bad and common enough that it has been described as a modern epidemic.
Musculoskeletal issues — mostly, back pain — are the leading cause of new and existing long-term disability claims, according to an analysis by the Council for Disability Awareness. Even those of us without chronic pain may feel stiff and sore after a day hunched over a computer.
Yet surely, even though the human body has a number of notable design flaws (I’m looking at you, knees), there’s no way we’ve evolved to have our spines, the primary support system for our bodies, fail out on us on a regular basis?
Our spines aren’t the problem, according to Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist who started researching back pain after experiencing an excruciating amount of it herself. The problem is our posture.
Gokhale, who the New York Times has referred to as the “posture guru” of Silicon Valley, says that by reintroducing the concept of “primal posture,” standing like babies or theoretically, like our ancestors, we can fix posture and back pain at the same time.
She says we’ve forgotten how to stand.
As NPR reports, Gokhale started by looking at indigenous groups around the world, where she says the back pain of the sort that’s so common in modern society is nonexistent. She studied the works of anthropologists who examined posture like Noelle Perez-Christiaens and looked at physiotherapy approaches like the Alexander Technique — multiple physiotherapy organisations say that posture is the key to a healthy spine. And Gokhale travelled around the world to see what people look like when they stand.
The first thing that stood out to her were the shapes of people’s spines in these small villages of Brazil, West Africa, Portugal, India, and other places. “They have this regal posture, and it’s very compelling.”
We tend to think that a spine with an “S-shaped” curve is normal, but Gokhale says we should try for more of a “J-curved” spine, as seen in the second image on the right (or above, on mobile).
“The J-shaped spine is what you see in Greek statues. It’s what you see in young children. It’s good design,” she told NPR.
But Gokhale thinks we can fix our posture by focusing on the way we stand and sit, and by doing so, “reposition and reshape your shoulders, arms, neck, torso, pelvis, hips, legs, and feet the way they were designed to be.”
As the NPR story about Gokhale points out, this idea that people have forgotten how to stand and have developed bad posture and back pain as a result isn’t a scientifically confirmed fact.
But there are elements of our lifestyle that contribute to bad posture, and many experts would say that fixing those could help solve back pain.
One neurosurgeon told NPR that a large part of the posture difference between the indigenous groups that Gokhale looked at and modern Americans may have to do with obesity rates. Carrying extra body fat and having weaker abdominal muscles is likely to pull your back forward — causing that slump and potentially, back pain too.
Fixing that, largely by developing stronger abdominal and core muscles, should help fix people’s posture, and eliminate back pain along the way. If Gokhale’s exercises help people build up their core muscles in the back and abdomen, it makes sense that they would help.
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