Is back pain an inevitable part of being American? Let’s hope not.

I heard a story on NPR recently about posture, the “J” shaped spine vs. the “S” shaped spine, and indigenous cultures that don’t have back pain.  Below is a summary of the report, provided by my summer intern, Sophie Frostbaum:

Back pain can be the root of all evil, and unfortunately, nearly all Americans will suffer from it at some point or another. Even worse, for a third of those people, no treatments will work, leaving them with a life of chronic back pain.

Globally, there are a few cultures where back pain barely exists, including one indigenous tribe in Central India that reported practically none. As the people of this tribe aged, the discs in their backs showed an extremely minor amount of degeneration.

Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist in Palo Alto, California, also known as the “posture guru” in Silicone Valley, thinks she has figured out why these people have nearly flawless backs. After traveling the world and studying cultures with low back pain, including how they stand, sit and walk, she is sharing their mending ways with people across the U.S in an attempt to ease their back pain.

When Gokhale began to struggle with back pain nearly two decades ago after her first child, it completely changed her life. She discovered that she had a herniated disk, and eventually underwent surgery to fix it. A year later, it happened again. When the doctor told her to go in for another surgery, Gokhale decided that she did not want to have another surgery; she wanted a permanent fix.

Gokhale had no faith in Western medicine permanently easing her back pain. She had the brilliant idea of spending the next decade visiting cultures around the world that live far from modern life, who do not suffer from back pain, and observing the ways by which they live. She viewed people spending their days sitting and weaving, walking with buckets of water on their heads, and collecting firewood for hours upon hours each and everyday.

While trying to figure out a commonality amongst all of these people, one thing came to mind: the shape of their spines. They all seemed to strut with a “regal posture”. Their spines were quite different than those of Americans. When looking at a typical American spine from the side, it is shaped like the letter S, curving at the top, and back again at the bottom. In those who do not have back pain, Gokhale did not see those two big curves; she saw a J-shaped spine. She explains, “The S-shape is actually not natural”.

As Gokhale worked to get her back into the J-shape, like the back of a Greek statue, her back-pain gradually subsided. After helping herself, she realized that she could help others. She wrote a book and has helped people such as Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube. Although her practices have not been clinically proven to work, several doctors who claim that her practices have helped innumerable amounts of people recommend her.

Here are Esther Gokhale’s Five Tips For Better Posture And Less Back Pain:

Try these exercises while you’re working at your desk, sitting at the dinner table or walking around, Esther Gokhale recommends.

  1. Do a shoulder roll: Americans tend to scrunch their shoulders forward, so our arms are in front of our bodies. That’s not how people in indigenous cultures carry their arms, Gokhale says. To fix that, gently pull your shoulders up, push them back and then let them drop — like a shoulder roll. Now you’re arms should dangle by your side, with your thumbs pointing out. “This is the way all your ancestors parked their shoulders,” she says. “This is a natural architecture for our species.”
  2. Lengthen your spine: Adding extra length to your spine is easy, Gokhale says. Being careful not to arch your back, take a deep breath in and grow tall. Then maintain that height as you exhale. Repeat: Breathe in, grow even taller and maintain that new height as you exhale. “It takes some effort, but it really strengthens your abdominal muscles,” Gokhale says.
  3. Squeeze, squeeze your glute muscles when you walk: In many indigenous cultures, people squeeze their gluteus medius muscles every time they take a step. That’s one reason they have such shapely buttocks muscles that support their lower backs. Gokhale says you can start developing the same type of derrière by tightening the buttocks muscles when you take each step. “The gluteus medius is the one you’re after here. It’s the one high up on your bum,” Gokhale says. “It’s the muscle that keeps you perky, at any age.”
  4. Don’t put your chin up: Instead, add length to your neck by taking a lightweight object, like a bean bag or folded washcloth, and balance it on the top of your crown. Try to push your head against the object. “This will lengthen the back of your neck and allow your chin to angle down — not in an exaggerated way, but in a relaxed manner,” Gokhale says.
  5. Don’t sit up straight! “That’s just arching your back and getting you into all sorts of trouble,” Gokhale says. Instead do a shoulder roll to open up the chest and take a deep breath to stretch and lengthen the spine.

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