Like losing eye sight and slowed metabolism, back pain is one of the great signs of getting old. For some it can be fixed with expensive surgeries or regular trips to the chiropractor, but for others it can become a horrible chronic pain.
There is a scene on the FX show “Louie” where Louie goes to see a doctor about his severe back pain. The doctor puts it to Louie rather bluntly and says there is nothing he can do because Louie is “using his back wrong.”
He is actually kind of right. In western society, people have a spine shaped like a “S”. It doesn’t start out this way, but it comes with our lifestyle. This isn’t how our spine was meant to be; what we want is more of a “J” shaped spine, that is common in many indigenous cultures. Author and back guru Esther Gokhale described to NPR how two decades ago she hurt her back, and after one surgery the pain returned. Understandably, she wasn’t thrilled about the idea of undergoing another back surgery, so she set out to find what she could learn from cultures that didn’t suffer from back pain. She would travel to remote places in the mountains of Ecuador and small villages in Africa, and learn that many people there didn’t suffer from back pain at all – even at an old age.
“I have a picture in my book of these two women who spend seven to nine hours everyday, bent over, gathering water chestnuts,” Gokhale says. “They’re quite old. But the truth is they don’t have a back pain”.
That is because they have a lifestyle that keeps their spine in its “J” shape where it is much flatter down the back and curves to stick the buttocks out. One reason most Americans have a “S” spine is because we have a less active lifestyle – just think about how much sitting you do during the day – and many of us are on the heavier side. “If you have a lot of fat built up in the belly, that could pull your weight forward,” said Dr. Praveen Mummaneni, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco’s Spine Center. “That could curve the spine. And people who are thinner probably have less curvature” – and thus a spine shaped more like a J rather than a S.
Gokhale says it is really what goes into the J-spine that matters – a solid core and strong abdominal muscles. Dr. Mummaneni agrees that it is not that indigenous people around the world have a special spine, they simply have a stronger core that contributes to that pain-free back.