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Studying Neanderthals to understand back pain

Sitting hunched over our work desks for long hours has altered the shape of our spines, leading to weaker backs that are always in pain

Back pain has become a universal problem because of our modern workplace environment that requires us to sit immobile for long hours
Back pain has become a universal problem because of our modern workplace environment that requires us to sit immobile for long hours (Pexels/Yan Krukau)

In our modern times, lower back pain seems to be an indicator of age, if not a rite of passage. From the sheer challenge of standing up after sitting on a squishy couch, rolling gingerly off the floor after playing with the dog, to simply groaning and getting out of bed in the morning, lower back pain has the world’s population in a vice grip. If you suffer from back pain, you can rest assured that you’re not alone. 

According to an article titled Back Pain, published in the National Library of Medicine, billions of dollars are spent annually worldwide on managing back pain. From my experience dealing with collapsed intervertebral discs—it can be a measurable and terrifying decrease in your quality of life.

When discussing the rise of back pain-related issues, we can place some blame on the modern workplace environment, begrudging the fact we sit all day. Indeed, this is a modern phenomenon: the 90-degree bent angle we force our bodies into at our work desks for long hours. If our ancestors sat for that long, they would likely be eaten or have squandered their time in finding food to eat. However, sitting is the new hunting and gathering lifestyle; it’s how we earn to pay for groceries. It’s not likely to disappear any time soon.

Also read: 5 unilateral exercises you must do to correct your body's imbalances

A study titled Inferring lumbar lordosis in Neanderthals and other hominins looked at intact Neanderthal spines, and compared them not just to the spines we have now, but the spines we had pre-industrial revolution, just a few hundred years ago. The results are enough to convince you to get up off the couch and stretch.

Neanderthal spines vs Human spines 
The distinction between Neanderthal and human spines lies in how they “wedge,” which is how the vertebrae are shaped and placed in the spine to create the lumbar curve we can see today. Neanderthals and pre-industrial humans have less wedging, meaning they have less lumbar curvature. Post-industrial humans have more wedging than both of them. Authors of this particular study posit that this is due to our hunched workstations and seated positions which have created an exaggerated version of the lumbar curvature. 

Structure aside, the question may not be how we are set up that counts; it’s how we move that matters. The spine is connected via a complex network of muscles, tendons, and ligaments bound in fascia to facilitate our every movement.

Quoted by Live Science in the article Why Do So Many Humans Have Back Pain, Bruce Latimer, a physical anthropologist from the Case Western Reserve University, said that our vertebrae are like cups and saucers stacked on top of each other, which despite being supported by muscles and ligaments, are prone to slippage. Some people have spinal structures which give them a higher risk of back problems; however, how that spine is supported through our “core” musculature is vital to maintaining spinal health, which our modern society lacks. 

The study regarding the discovery of Neanderthals tells us that the soft tissue surrounding the spine can change throughout the day, based on our activities, which in turn can affect the placement of our spines. Your body becomes strong in what it does the most. How we move our bodies (or not), morphs our bodies, and we have done a fantastic job at that.

The call to be comfortable, and maybe even lazy, is rife. As a modern form of our species, we have somehow universally decided to do more sitting after a stressful day of sitting, which involves plush furniture that spines sink into, creating pressure on the lower lumbar vertebrae, and seated positions that mimic a gorilla while watching small screens on iPhones. Our spines are being held in unnatural and suboptimal positions for much longer than they should be throughout the day, and humans are starting to pay the price for that.

Morphing into Mindy 
If this is the change we can make to our spines in a few hundred years, I went on a rampage looking up digital models of what our bodies could look like in 1,000 years, and what I found was a genuinely terrifying model called Mindy, as a (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek model of what future humans could look like.

She had a “tech neck” (thick with muscles that held it in a position to view a phone), with a placement that looked like the “dowager hump” (neck falls forward away from your trunk), a humped back, and she also had claw like hands with a stiff elbow. You can be both dismayed and inspired by this idea of morphing your body into dysfunction, but I encourage you to be more inspired than dismayed. 

Morphing suggests that although you may not be able to actively influence your spinal placement on your own, you certainly have a degree of control over what positions you put your body in over the course of a day.

Also read: How to slow muscle loss and get fitter as you age

Saravanan Palanimuthu, a Certified Movement Therapist and Integrated Manual Therapist based in Chennai, told me that almost 70% of his physiotherapy clients consult him for their lower back pain. He says, “The cause for lower back pain has a galaxy of reasons ranging from extreme immobility to over mobility and obesity to malnourishment.” However, the vast majority of back pain he sees is “desktop related.” If you’re someone who is stuck in an immobile position at work or at home, he offers some guidance to help alleviate any pressure on your lower back: keep your hamstrings (back of your leg), quadriceps muscles (front of your legs), and waist flexible. Sitting for too long can shorten some muscles into position, or lengthen them, altering your pelvic alignment, therefore, your spine. And finally, Palanimuthu tells us that when we sit, we must ensure that our hips align with our knees or higher on a firm chair. This stops our spine from rounding, creating pressure on our vertebrae.

Stretch your back

Hamstring stretch: Start by placing your right leg in front of you, heel down on the ground, toes pointed to the sky. Keep your hips forward and gently hinge at the hip, pushing your glutes to the back wall, creating a long line between your heel and hips. As you exhale, see if you can slowly deepen that stretch.

Quad stretch: Stand tall with one hand on the wall for balance. Pick up your opposite foot and slowly pull your heel towards your glutes. Imagine creating a long line between your head and knee, don’t arch your back. Exhale throughout this stretch, and after 10-15 seconds, slowly lower your foot and repeat on the other side.

Hip bridging: Lie down on a mat, knees bent, feet hip distance apart. On your exhale, raise your glutes until your shoulders, glutes, and knees make a straight line (no arching through your back). You should feel a gentle squeeze in your glutes and maybe some tightness in your hips. Inhale and lower your body back to the ground, exhale, and repeat for 8-10 repetitions.

Jen Thomas is a master women's coach.

Also read: Why you should increase your core strength for a healthy life


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