Gokhale had a herniated disc. Eventually she had surgery to fix it. But a year later, it happened again. “They wanted to do another back surgery. You don’t want to make a habit out of back surgery,” she says.
This time around, Gokhale wanted to find a permanent fix for her back. And she wasn’t convinced Western medicine could do that. So Gokhale started to think outside the box. She had an idea: “Go to populations where they don’t have these huge problems and see what they’re doing.”
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.
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.”
Then Gokhale realized she could help others She developed a set of exercises, wrote a book and opened a studio.
Matt Drudge recently noted an anniversary of his aggregator news site with a Twitter post: “18 years of DRUDGE REPORT in February! And STILL sitting ;).”
Mr. Drudge, 46, hasn’t just been sitting for two decades. Like so many workers chained to their technology, he has been hunched over desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets, and it’s all taken a toll on his body. He tries to limit the time he spends sitting to four or five hours a day, but sometimes he sits for up to 17 hours. To ease his back, neck and shoulder pain, Mr. Drudge says he has learned how to adjust his posture.
Dr. Praveen Mummaneni, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco’s Spine Center. Nobody has done a study on traditional cultures to see why some have lower rates of back pain, he says. Nobody has even documented the shape of their spines.
“I’d like to go and take X-rays of indigenous populations and compare it to people in the Western world,” Mummaneni says. “I think that would be helpful.”
But there’s a whole bunch of reasons why Americans’ postures — and the shape of their spines — may be different than those of indigenous populations, he says. For starters, Americans tend to be much heavier.
“If you have a lot of fat built up in the belly, that could pull your weight forward,” Mummaneni says. “That could curve the spine. And people who are thinner probably have less curvature” — and thus a spine shaped more like J than than an S. Dr Mummaneni also attributes poor backs to weakened muscles, especially the abdominals.
Ms. Gokhale is not the first to suggest that changing posture is the key to a healthy spine. Practitioners of the Alexander Technique and the creators of the Aplomb Institute in Paris similarly help clients find more natural and comfortable ways to position themselves. Pilates and physical therapy can improve posture and bring awareness to it. A handful of companies, like Lumo BodyTech, now sell personal posture monitors, offering smartphone users constant feedback about the way they hold their bodies.
Ms. Gokhale’s methods have not been tested scientifically, though a doctor at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation is planning on conducting clinical trials by the end of the year.
But Ms. Gokhale, who was trained as a biochemist at Princeton University and studied at Stanford’s medical school, has some influence among medical professionals, particularly in Silicon Valley. Over 100 have referred patients to her, and a similar number have taken her course, she says.
Regardless of occupation or lifestyle, backaches affect most Americans — about 8 in 10 deal with the pain at some point in their lifetimes, according to Dr. Richard Deyo, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University.
The expenses are huge as well. By one estimate that appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the national cost of treating people with back and neck pain was $86 billion in 2005. And with back pain one of the top reasons for worker disability, missed work because of these aches may cost employers close to $7 billion a year, according to one study.
For the majority of people with back pain, the aches are short-lived and relief comes with rest and time, according to Dr. Deyo. But methods to help those with chronic pain are diverse. Using a standing desk at work has become a popular way to ease discomfort. Exercise, yoga, massage and chiropractic have also been shown to reduce pain. Medical treatments like surgery and steroids continue to be important options, doctors say, even amid concerns that these have been overused.