Humans are descendants of arboreal species of primates. Our complex biomechanics allowed us to climb and swing from trees, crawl through caves, jump across rivers and sit on the bare ground for hours, stalking prey, cooking it, eating it and sharing with others in a communal feast. Our bodies adapted to this way of being. Rarely did we remain in a comfortable position for hours at a time. Rarely did we stay in the same position for most of the day, for most of the days of the year.
Enter Lower Back Pain.
In 2015, 3.7 million people reported chronic lower back problems (that’s 3.7 million cases severe enough to actually report to someone!)1. Four years earlier, it was known as the 3rd leading cause of disease burden in Australia1. It is a safe bet that everyone you meet will experience back pain at some point in their life. And it’s another safe bet that it wasn’t always this way.
So why the sudden debilitating change in human evolution? It can really only be one thing, which is what we repeatedly do.
Most of us who are lucky enough to be reading this on a smart-device would spend most of their waking lives in the seated position. Whether at work, commuting, resting or defecating, we’re most commonly enjoying a seat with kyphotic (rounded) upper back, relaxed (weak) abdominal and gluteal muscles, shortened hip flexors, and forward head posture; most of our weight is carried vertically through the spine into the seat, creating a mild compression of the spongy discs between each vertebra; and the circulation of our blood is primarily feeding the forever hungry brain.
When we’re not in a seated position, we’re probably walking (or running) on flat, paved ground providing little necessary stimulation to the body, wearing pointy-toed or cushioned shoes (to further reduce that essential stimulation) with a slight (or extreme) elevation of the heel so as to shorten and weaken the Achille’s tendon.
All this stimulation or lack of stimulation is leading towards back pain. It’s important not to think of back pain as a random ailment that some people are burdened with and some are not. It’s a better perspective to think of the body as always giving us feedback for how we are living our lives. Some of our worst chronic injuries are our best teachers of the body, and it is no different for problems with the back.
So how do we achieve pain-free back bliss? It’s actually far less complicated than what some health professionals may lead you to believe. It begins with movement, and a lot of it, with a lot of variety. Running or cycling is an excellent exercise, but it is the same movement pattern performed over and over again, often for hours throughout the week. It is not necessarily sitting that makes sitting bad – it is more likely that it’s the single act of repeating one position for most of our lives that are the real issue. This goes for sitting, standing, running or any other position. For most of us non-professional athletes, we must remember this: Less movement = More injuries.
Along with constantly varied, complex movement is anti-inflammatory nutrition. Some people experience dramatic alleviation of back pain by cleaning up their diet, losing some excess body fat and reducing systemic inflammation. A healthy diet is full of essential amino acids to heal and repair the bodies connective tissue, and in fact, pain receptors are often triggered by the chemical messengers of the inflammatory process. If you find yourself opting for the anti-inflammatory drugs, we would highly recommend shifting your diet to one more similar to our arboreal ancestors.
It’s a shame most of us must experience lower back pain once in our lives to fully appreciate what capabilities we truly have in this vessel of a human body. This is the thing we experience life with. Take care of it.
- Back problems snapshot. Australian institute of health and welfare. 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/chronic-musculoskeletal-conditions/back-problems/contents/what-are-back-problems