Why Back Pain is Uncommon Among Indigenous People

American woman's method helps resolve back pain in many, including herself

Back pain is an unfortunate reality for most Americans, and for approximately one-third of those people, pain becomes a chronic condition. Such was the case for an acupuncturist in Palo Alto, CA.  Esther Gokhale first experienced excruciating back pain after the birth of her first child. She stated, “I couldn’t sleep at night. I was walking around the block every two hours. I was just crippled.”

Gokhale learned she had a herniated disc and underwent surgical treatment. However, a year later it happened again and her doctor recommended a second surgery.  That’s when Gokhale became inspired to search for a better answer to her back pain problem. 

African bushmanNo Back Pain Among Indigenous Populations
First, Gokhale did her research and studied indigenous populations from around the world who did not suffer back pain. Her research included that of anthropologist Noelle Perez-Christiaens, who is the originator of balance yoga. Gokhale also reviewed postures and physiotherapy methods such as the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method.

Next, Gokhale traveled to villages in central India, Ecuador, Portugal, and West Africa to see for herself.  She observed how these people stood, sat, and walked. Gokhale discovered a commonality between the different indigenous groups; they all had well-developed abdominal muscles and straight postures. 

Gokhale described the postures of these populations as “regal” and ultimately found their spines are J-shaped not S-shaped like the spines of most Americans.  A J-shaped spine is much flatter than the S-shaped spine (Figure 1). The J-shaped spine is prominent in Greek statues and photographs from the early 1900s.

J-shaped spine versus S-shaped spine

Figure 1. S-shaped versus J-shaped spine
(Courtesy of  Wordpress)

Gokhale's Discovery Helps Others with Back Pain
Gokhale remedied her own back pain and spine problem through exercise and physical therapy. Then she began to help others in her Bay Area (California) practice, the Gokhale Method. Each year, doctors refer hundreds of patients to her.  She’s taught classes at Google, Facebook, and other companies and has become known as the “posture guru.” Doctors describe her methods as similar to yoga and Pilates.

Praveen Mummaneni, MD, a neurosurgeon and Professor and Vice-Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of California at San Francisco indicated there have been no clinical studies of either Gokhale’s methods or that answer the question why indigenous populations have a significantly lower incidence of back pain. However, Dr. Mummaneni did point out three reasons why Americans experience back pain: being overweight, inactivity (sedentary lifestyle), and a lack of regular exercise to build core strength.

Updated on: 06/25/15
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