A little help to sit up straight

  • Back problems are a result of wrong posture and weak muscles
  • Physiotherapists and chiropractors tell you about ways to strengthen the spine

Back problems don’t always start with the spine. Weak core muscles, which lead to lack of stability and poor spinal alignment, are a leading cause of lower back pain, and even serious conditions such as ruptured and herniated discs.

“A sedentary lifestyle can lower muscle strength and mass. It can also lead to weight gain, which in turn results in stress on the back’s muscles and joints, causing pains and cramps in the back and the neck. Since the strength of the muscles is low, there is a higher chance of problems such as arthritis and disc herniation—when the cushion-like substance between two vertebrae pushes out through the bones’ exterior," says Satyen Mehta, spine consultant at Mumbai’s H.E.A.L. Institute, a sports medicine and injury prevention and management clinic founded in 2011 that has been celebrating Spine Care Month through July at its four centres in the city (Worli, Bandra, Khar and Lokhandwala). “The problem can be benign or go on to irritate the spinal nerves, cause pain, or result in the bones’ numbness or weakness."

DEVICES TO THE RESCUE

Research has shown that a J-shaped spine is a strong indicator that things are as they should be.

Two decades ago, after years of battling back pain despite undergoing spinal surgery, California-based acupuncturist Esther Gokhale started looking outside Western medicine. She researched lifestyle habits in indigenous communities which hadn’t experienced back pain, and inferred that people from these communities had a J-shaped spine, as opposed to the more common S-shaped one.

Expanding on the more established Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method which help strengthen neurovascular connections to aid better muscle movement, she developed her own method, based on the idea that we have forgotten how to use our bodies. She reasons that more than avoiding prolonged hours of sitting, the key is to relearn the correct posture when seated. Her theories are now popularly branded the Gokhale Method.

While sitting straight, there is a tendency to arch the back—Gokhale says this is a common mistake. This actually compresses the discs and shortens the lower back. Years of poor conditioning need more than a nudge in the right direction for a change in posture.

The Stretchsit back cushion
The Stretchsit back cushion

A decade ago, Gokhale launched her brand’s Stretchsit back cushion, priced at $49.95 now (around 3,400). When you sit against it, its eight nubs gently rub against your lower back muscles. This helps to elongate your spine and decompress its discs, stretching the back muscles in a sustained manner.

Now, the market (and Instagram) are replete with such products —cushions, braces, rollers, etc. But how do you choose what’s right for you, given their varying price points and quality?

Bengaluru-based chiropractor Prathap R. Addageethala recommends a device called Upright Go, priced at $79.95. Its remote sensor signals its app when the angle of your head starts tilting (a sign of poor posture) to remind you to straighten up. The device’s hypo-allergenic adhesives can stick to your back. “It helps to remap your behavioural tendencies. It reminds you to correct your back posture without physically holding your body in place. Its impact is more neurological than structural," he says.

The Posture Medic harness.
The Posture Medic harness.

He also suggests Posture Medic, a flexible shoulder strap harness, priced at 1,999. The harness stabilizes your back, reminding your muscles to maintain the correct posture. He says, “The good thing about it is that it can double up as an exercise equipment for your arms and back to stretch with." The strap harness can be used to exercise the tonic (lower back) and phasic (upper back and shoulder) muscles.

Dr Addageethala, who does not have a commercial tie-up with either of these products, cautions against relying on them if you have already developed back problems. “It’s always better to get checked by a medical practitioner. To use them to tackle pain is a symptom-based approach, but we ideally want to have a prevention-based approach," he says.

NO EASY REMEDY

Shilpa Arya, a physiotherapist at Mumbai’s Saifee hospital, doesn’t recommend the use of products. She is comfortable, however, with the tried and tested kinesiology tapes when applied by trained supervisors during physiotherapy sessions.

Arya says: “These products are a passive form of help as opposed to exercising. They might keep your muscles in place, but the muscles aren’t working at all, which weakens and deteriorates them in the long run. They only help if exercising is impossible."

Dr Mehta too maintains that posture-correcting products don’t work as well as they claim to, and highlights the importance of exercise. He also advises that products must be used in consultation with a doctor, since the source of the back problem may remain unknown otherwise.

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