But acupuncturist and author Esther Gokhale turned to an unlikely source to investigate back pain in her bestselling new book: 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. Gokhale spent an immense amount of time investigating indigenous populations (from those in Portugal to Ecuador to West Africa and elsewhere). This is because, in these populations, the instance of back pain is extremely rare and is often even unheard of, despite the fact that these people use their backs for hard labor every single day. So how do they avoid back pain? Gokhale says it all comes down to spine shape.
J versus S
Most Americans have a spine that is shaped like the letter S. It curves at the top, goes inward at mid-back, and curves out again at the base. In indigenous populations however, the spine is shaped like the letter J. It is mainly flat from the top downward, until it curves out at the base (where the back meets the buttocks). This is also the spine shape of young children. Gokhale, herself a long-time sufferer of back pain, wondered if the shape of the spine had anything to do with pain. Over the course of her studies, she determined that getting back to a J-shaped spine could prove to be extremely beneficial to everyone, especially those already dealing with pain.
We know that as children our spines have that J shape. So what happens over time to cause the S curve? It’s largely because of lifestyle choices. Americans spend massive amounts of time hunched over computer screens. Unlike indigenous populations, we often sit in chairs for 8+ hours a day and we almost never squat or sit on the floor while working. Our core muscles are likely not as strong as they could be, leading to sagging bellies and sloping spines. Besides this, Americans are much more likely to be overweigh than indigenous populations, and this weight leads to stress and curvature of the spine.
How to Get Back to J
So how do we get back to that ideal J spine shape? Gokhale says there are a series of exercises and postures in her book that can help people reform their spines. These exercises aren’t unlike those found in yoga and pilates programs, but Gokhale says they are specifically targeted to restructure the spine. Core muscle strength, lifestyle choices, and weight are all factors in her program, but the benefits of having a healthy back are not to be understated, and the results (spine shape that you can see evolving over time) are less abstract than a diet or exercise program alone. Even those of us with no back trouble at all should shoot for the J spine—and prevention may prove to be critical as we age over time. Better to stave off pain entirely than to have to go through the work of rehabilitation.