Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Back Pain: S-Curves, J-Curves, and Childhood Nutrition

A naked woman walking. Notice the S-curve of the spine.
Collotype after Eadward Muybridge, 1887. wikimedia commons

In the past few days, I've been seeing NPR's report on Esther Gokhale's work on spinal curves appear on my newsfeed. Gokhale traveled the world to study societies that don't suffer from back pain and discovered that these peoples have a J-curve of the spine, rather than the assumed "healthy" S-curve that we in western, back-pain plagued cultures know.

I have my own theory about this: Unnatural early childhood nutrition causes the prevalence of S-curved spines in developed countries. Some of you know that I've been obsessing about teeth lately, and here I see the connection. 

But let me first give you some back story. When I was studying Rolfing in the 90s, we learned that there are 2 basic body types: internal and external. An internal type tends to have a narrow head shape and strong spinal curves, susceptible to a hunched back (S-curve). An external type has a wider head shape and a flatter spine (J-curve, roughly). We were taught the reasons for an internal or external body type are either genetic or prenatal.

1. Regular Internal (corresponds to a long, narrow head shape).
2. Locked Knee Internal.
3. Regular External (corresponds to a wide head shape).
4. Symmetrical External.
From "The Structural Typography of Hans Flury" by Robert Schleip

But while reading up on childhood nutrition and its effects on the dental development, I learned that indigenous peoples who aren't exposed to a modern diet of processed food never need braces. Indigenous people's teeth aren't "crowded". Their jaws and palates develop wide enough for all their teeth to fit. Key word: wide. You might have noticed that indigenous people have wider faces than people living in modernized societies. If you look inside their mouths, you'll see they have lots of teeth, unlike many westerners who've had teeth extracted prior to braces. Wider faces and wider heads correlate to milder curves in the back, giving these indigenous people a natural J-curve.

Indigenous Europeans with perfect teeth: Swedish Sami girls from the Arctic Circle also have wide palates, well-developed middle faces, and healthy bites.
Photo: wikimedia commons
So while the NPR article sites sedentary lifestyles and overweight in the America as possible causes of the S-curve spine (which has not been my experience; I've actually seen more thin people with very strong S-curves), I think we need to consider early childhood nutrition, which plays a huge role in shaping the cranium and thus the spine's curves. Also in my practice, I've very often seen that people with strong S-curves also have more malocclusion (bad bites) and sinus issues that result from a too narrow palate.

A child's craniofacial development is largely complete by age 12, with the fastest changes taking place before age 4. The combination of these elements of modern childhood nutrition prevents the jaw from widening properly during this time, leading to crowded teeth and underdeveloped mid-third of the face:

Bottle feeding

Extended pacifier use
Baby food/purees that don't promote early chewing skills and palate widening
Diets low in mineralizing vitamins (A, D, and K)
Diets low in grass-fed animal fats which are needed for the body to absorb vitamins A, D, and K
Diets high in carbohydrates, sugars, and empty calories which replace vitamin-rich nutrients

So we can help our kids have healthier jaws, teeth, and spines with a good nutrition, even if it's too late for us adults. You can find more information with pictures in my blog post Nature's Perfect Smile and at westonaprice.org.

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