Why Some Indigenous Populations Don’t Experience Back Pain

What one woman found when she visited remote villages where back pain is virtually nonexistent

Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced back pain.

If you’re living in the modern developed world, chances are pretty good that you have. In fact, 80 percent of American adults experience low back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and a third will develop chronic back issues that persist, even with treatment.

Esther Gokhale was one of those people. The California acupuncturist started experiencing excruciating pain in her back, caused by a herniated disc. “I was just crippled,” she recently told NPR. She had surgery, but the pain came back. Seeking an alternative to a second surgery, Esther decided to investigate those traditional cultures that, historically, have suffered little to no back pain. Surely they’ll have some answers, she thought.

After a bit of research, Esther identified and traveled to several indigenous populations far removed from modern life. Over the course of a decade, she visited Portugal, Ecuador, and West Africa, among other places. She was struck by the “regal posture” she witnessed, even of those women who spent their days hunched over collecting water chestnuts for hours on end.

So what did these relatively back pain–free cultures have in common? It came down to the shape of their spines, which looked more like the letter J than S, which is usually thought of as the shape of a healthy spine in Western medicine.

“That S shape is actually not natural,” Esther says. In a J-shaped spine, the bulk of the spine is straight, with a small curve on the bottom where the buttocks sticks out. “The J-shaped spine is what you see in Greek statues. It’s what you see in young children. It’s good design,” she says.

In addition to working on getting her own spine into more of a J shape, Esther wrote a book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, to share what she’s learned with others. She now spreads her approach, a mix of posture corrections and best practices for walking, sitting, and sleeping, during talks and classes at her studio in Palo Alto. Her clients include tech industry big shots, like YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and the New York Times called her the Posture Guru of Silicon Valley in a 2013 profile.

For more of Esther’s story, listen to her interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

Photo by Jake Laub. 

[h/t NPR]

Grace Edquist is associate editor of Wanderlust.