Is a J-Shaped Spine the End of Back Pain?

Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist from Palo Alto, California has made a pretty startling observation that she thinks has unlocked the mystery of back pain in Western cultures. Ms. Gokhale discovered the secret to you pain-free just might be the shape of a person’s spine, which he calls a J-shaped spine. She shared her findings with National Public Radio on June 8, 2015.

Ms. Gokale experienced tremendous and unrelenting back pain after the birth of her child. She was diagnosed with a herniated disc and she had back surgery to repair it. However, being the inquisitive type, she set out to find out why people in Western cultures have extremely high rates of back pain while indigenous populations and certain Eastern cultures have virtually none.

Instead of reading books about the topic, she decided to go to the source. Esther set off on a world tour visiting indigenous peoples in various parts of the world where back pain is virtually unheard of. She visited such remote locations that young children would not stop crying because they had never before seen someone with white skin.

The major difference, Ms. Gokhale states, between societies with and societies withoutback pain is the shape of their spine. People who are relatively devoid of back pain have a J-shaped spine while most Westerners have an S-shaped spine.

What is the difference between a J-shaped spine and an S-shaped spine? Modern representations of the spine in anatomy textbooks show the spine making the shape of a letter S when viewed in profile. An S-shaped spine tends to bend towards the back in the chest but then bend again towards the abdomen near the waist. A J-shaped spine looks more like a J when viewed in profile. The spine is much straighter near the waist.

Esther Gokhalereport saying this over and over again in her travels—people that hold their spines in a Jshape are pain-free. She goes on to suggest that Westerners could prevent or even treat their back pain by learning how to carry their spine in a Jshape rather than an Sshape. Ms. Gokhaleeven offers seminars to train people how to “convert” their S-shaped spine to a J-shaped spine.

Could this be true? It is an intriguing possibility. Medicine is usually resistant to the observations of a single observer that have not been published in the peer-reviewed journal. Likewise, when the observer then starts to enact these untested strategies for the paying customer, physicians are doubly skeptical.

Nevertheless, people seem to achieve some benefit from her exercises and there is very little risk of harm. So if there is little risk to healthy people and a possible reward, why not give it a try?

Esther Gokhalesuggests these five steps to achieve a J-shaped spine:

  1. Roll back your shoulders. Westerners slump their shoulders forward, but indigenous peoples live with their shoulders pushed back. If you do it right, your arm should dangle by your side with your thumbs pointing out.
  1. Lengthen your spine when you stand. Essentially try to not arch your spine. Stand tall and pull in your stomach muscles.
  1. Clench your glutes. Indigenous populations squeeze their buttocks together as they walk. This supports the pelvis and lower spine
  1. Balance a (pretend) book on your head. If you can balance a book on your head, your head is at the proper elevation and your neck is properly supporting her head (at least to achieve a J-shaped spine).
  1. Lengthen your spine when you sit.Just like the second item on the list, roll your shoulders back and open up your chest to lengthen your spine when you are in a seated position.

Will a J-shaped spine actually prevent or treat back pain? No one really knows.

It would have been very helpful if Ms. Gokhalehad taken spine x-rays or CT scans of the indigenous peoples she visited. Then they could be compared to images taken from Westerners to determine if the spinal shape actually correlated with back pain.

In truth, the J-shaped spine may not be the key at all. Indigenous peoples are more physically active, and more physically fit, and constantly strengthen their abdominal muscles and glutes. But since the exercises required to change an S-shaped spine to a J-shaped spine strengthen the core muscles—something you should probably be doing anyway—it may not hurt to try.

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