Why We Have Low Back Pain

In this NPR story about back pain, some old myths about back pain persist – the biggest one is that strong abdominals will help relieve back pain. I understand the opinion that the shape of one’s spine (a “J” spine, as compared to an “S” spine) may be why some indigenous cultures don’t have back pain, but too much is missing from this discussion.

Back pain is a functional adaptation to stress caused by chronically contracted muscles that will not release.

The answer to back pain is simpler than people realize: for the majority of back pain sufferers, back pain slowly develops over time due to what they do repeatedly in their daily life. Whatever you do consistently becomes a habit in your central nervous system, brain, muscles and movement. The inability to sense what you are doing and why – and choose to change it in the moment – results in a  loss of control over one’s muscles, movement, and for many suffering from pain, their lives. Efficient, easy, effortless movement and personal freedom go by the wayside.

Thomas Hanna, Ph.D, author of the book, Somaticsputs it this way:

….the almost epidemic prevalence of pain in the lower back is not specifically a medical problem. that is, it is not a condition of break down of some kind, a disease process…it is actually something that is in some sense a kind of psychological, or emotional process. The prevalence of back pain has everything to do with the kind of lives that we live and the kind of society in which we live. Now if I were to try and put a finger on the most general pathology of urban industrial society…I would say that the pathology is that of proprioceptive illiteracy. Most human beings grow up losing the ability to perceive internal events in their own bodies.

He describes the Green Light Reflex (the Landau Response), a reflex that is invoked automatically every time there is a “call to action – ” an urgent  Tanzanian-Trip-3-474deadline, or the need to rush to get somewhere. The brain contracts the  muscles of the back to move the body forward. Reflexes are neutral, helpful and often life-saving. Yet if you live in a society where this reflex is evoked thousands of times a day your brain gradually habituates to the reflex to the point where you can no longer – voluntarily – relax, nor control your back muscles. The back muscles (as well as gluteal muscles, hamstrings, shoulder muscles) can become rigidly and painfully contracted.

Indigenous people have different stresses from those in industrialized western culture, but what they have to a greater extent than us is movement. They move more than they sit; they move slowly, they differentiate their movement, they squat, and, as they walk, their pelvises move. Their pace of life is slower. It is not a “are we there yet?” culture.

Try this somatic exercise for relief of your back pain.

If a group of indigenous people were to sit in front of a computer for 40+ hours a week, drive cars in rush hour traffic, drastically reduce their movement (except the occasional workout), or be subjected to technology that demand constant attention, they would likely develop back pain. It is their environment, their lifestyle, and their attitude toward life (rather than their spines) have more to do with why they suffer less from back pain than most western societies.

We adapt to our environment for better or worse. If you want the perks that come with our stressful western industrialized society you would do well to incorporate the wisdom of movement and awareness of indigenous cultures.

6 thoughts on “Why We Have Low Back Pain

  1. I am from Latin America, male, 33 yo, and suffer from back, left arm and general left body pain for about 9-10 years, all that time sitting while studying, gym, computers, driving cars, working in a computer all day made me suffer that. Doctors did MRI and found nothing out of normal.
    What i do today is somatics exercises every day wich learned from the book and DVD, they really set the muscles more free than regular stretching and release them ,sometimes i go to swimming pool in hot water because it feels so good and i started to take care of psychological/emotional process too, as Thomas Hanna said, there are some doctors writing about psicosomatic pain with no strutural causes. In my case, i found out that a multi-focal treatment is the best, adressing physical, psychological, neuromuscular, emotional and stress issues.
    These alternative therapies are very limited in my city, so that i thank you very much for teaching Somatics exercises in your books and site so that everyone with internet computer can try at home these exercises for pain relief.

    All the best Martha

    • Hi Fausto,

      Thanks for your comment.You are most welcome! I teach this work because it has helped me relieve long term pain that no other method could help me with. I’m so glad it’s helping you so much!
      I completely agree that for many people a multi-focused approach is extremely helpful and necessary. The emotional definitely impacts the physical and vice versa.

      All the best,

  2. Hi Martha,
    Thank you for your explanation. I was already thinking about the J-shape, because I found it on internet. The way you explain it is clear. So, if I understand you well, if the concerning muscles are relaxed and have enough room for movement, the “right” shape of your spine will arise from that as a result.

    Accidentally, I had to lengthen (pandiculate) the hamstrings and that had as a result that I experienced more a J-shape. As a result of more and enough ROM for the hamstrings, movement of the pelvis bones relative to the sacrum and spine increases. That makes it possible that the buttocks are more behind a little bit as seen by more natural living people. It improves walking !

    Is this a good explanation ?


  3. …thinking further: freeing all the muscles of the hips (and schoulders and so on) are important to let emerge, and get back a more natural way of movement and more natural body shape and less pain and problems. That is Somatics.
    Thank you for Somatics !

  4. Pingback: interesting on back pain – doesn’t help my compression fracture etc – but still interesting | Slices Of Lyme Pie

  5. Pingback: Correct Your Common Posture Problems in 3 Steps | Pain Relief Through Movement

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