While most Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives, there are other cultures around the world that claim they hardly, if ever, find themselves struggling with the same ailment.
Believe it or not, there are a few cultures in the world where back pain hardly exists. One indigenous tribe in central India reported essentially none. And the discs in their backs showed little signs of degeneration as people aged.
An acupuncturist in Palo Alto, Calif., thinks she has figured out why. She has traveled around the world studying cultures with low rates of back pain — how they stand, sit and walk. So Gokhale studied findings from anthropologists, such as Noelle Perez-Christiaens, who analyzed postures of indigenous populations.
Then over the next decade, Gokhale went to cultures around the world that live far away from modern life. She went to the mountains in Ecuador, tiny fishing towns in Portugal and remote villages of West Africa. Gokhale took photos and videos of people who walked with water buckets on their heads, collected firewood or sat on the ground weaving, for hours.
“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.” She tried to figure out what all these different people had in common. The first thing that popped out was the shape of their spines. “They have this regal posture, and it’s very compelling.”
And it’s quite different than American spines.
If you look at an American’s spine from the side, or profile, it’s shaped like the letter S. It curves at the top and then back again at the bottom. But Gokhale didn’t see those two big curves in people who don’t have back pain. “That S shape is actually not natural,” she says. “It’s a J-shaped spine that you want.”
In fact, if you look at drawings from Leonardo da Vinci — or a Gray’s Anatomy book from 1901 — the spine isn’t shaped like a sharp, curvy S. It’s much flatter, all the way down the back. Then at the bottom, it curves to stick the buttocks out. So the spine looks more like the letter J.
Americans are also much less active than people in traditional cultures, and everyone knows that weak abdominal muscles can cause back pain. Consequently, it’s not the J-Shaped spine we should all strive for, but a strong core. Indigenous people around the world don’t have a magic bullet for stopping back pain. They’ve just got beefy abdominal muscles, and their lifestyle helps to keep them that way, even as they age.