Sighs of "Oh, my aching back," and catalogues with office chairs that promise perfect posture and back pain banishment are commonplace in a nation where many suffer from back pain - a third of the unlucky chosen experiencing chronic pain, according to Gallup. There are cultures where back pain in basically nonexistent and discs don't degenerate with age as they do in America, according to a previous study.
Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist in Palo Alto, Calif., started her journey studying cultures with low rates of back pain after having her first child about 20 years ago, according to NPR. "I had excruciating pain. I couldn't sleep at night," she said. "I was walking around the block every two hours. I was just crippled."
Gokhale had surgery to fix a herniated disc, but after a year, she had the same problem. "They wanted to do another back surgery. You don't want to make a habit out of back surgery," Gokhale said.
Since Western medicine wasn't helping, Gokhale started brainstorming. It hit her: "Go to populations where they don't have these huge problems and see what they're doing."
For the next 10 years, Gokhale- now known as the "posture guru" - travelled to cultures that were removed from "modern life" - the mountains in Ecuador, tiny fishing villages in Portugal and remote areas of West Africa. "I went to villages where every kid under age four was crying because they were frightened to see somebody with white skin - they'd never seen a white person before," she told NPR.
Gokhale photographed and videoed people walking with baskets on their heads, women gathering chestnuts and older women sitting and weaving. Something about their posture struck Gokhale. "They have this regal posture, and it's very compelling."
Americans lack that regality that Gokhale noted in the indigenous people. That's because an American's spine (when viewed from the side) is shaped like the letter S with a curve at the top and a curve at the bottom. "That S shape is actually not natural," she said. "It's a J-shaped spine that you want."
"The J-shaped spine is what you see in Greek statues. It's what you see in young children. It's good design," Gokhale said. When she got her back into the J-shape, Gokhale said her pain went away.
Dr. Praveen Mummaneni, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco's Spine Center, doesn't doubt the theory, but also doesn't think indigenous people have magic spines. There could be a number of reasons for the differences in spine curvature, but this is where size matters. "If you have a lot of fat built up in the belly, that could pull your weight forward," Mummaneni said. "That could curve the spine. And people who are thinner probably have less curvature."
"I think the sedentary lifestyle promotes a lack of muscle tone and a lack of postural stability because the muscles get weak," Mummaneni added. "You're not going to be able to go from the S- to the J-shaped spine without having good core muscle strength. And I think that's key here."