By Brad Williamson BSc. (Physiotherapy) Dist.
The myth of the straight back
Are you sitting TOO straight?
How many times have you been told ‘sit up straight!’? I can guarantee it is a lot more than you have been told to slump! However, the current back pain and posture research does not favour the social infatuation of maintaining a ruler-straight spine in pursuit of a healthy back.
Whilst there are many unanswered questions pertaining to the cause and treatment of back pain, there is a general consensus that posture is not a one-size-fitsall scenario. So why is the myth of the straight back touted as healthy back behaviour?
It is a combination of factors; the first being that a straight back while sitting is easier on the eye than a rounded back, an idea popularised in the 20th century. This is why you probably received this piece of ‘wisdom’ regularly from one of your elders!
Secondly, and most importantly, spinal mechanics are not widely understood. As a result many people believe that postures in which the low back to bends predispose the back to damage. This, however, is not supported by the scientific literature(1).
Human bodies are well constructed pieces of kit, refined over millions of years maintaining characteristics that benefit us and weeding out those that do not. Keeping this is in mind, it is no coincidence that the low back (lumbar spine) is highly mobile. This is because it is supposed to move! If it were supposed to be a rigid pole, we would not have the freedom of movement that it offers. Not only is the lumbar spine able to move, it needs to move. The vast majority of successful low back pain rehabilitation programs assist recovery through the use of movement and exercise. Motion is lotion ladies and gentlemen.
As aforementioned posture is not a one-stop-shop, the optimum posture varies between individuals due to a whole host of factors. A sub-group of people with back pain develop said pain as a result of maintaining a straight spine at all times, this pattern is referred to as an active extensor pattern (1,2). Basically, by maintaining a straight back all day, everyday the muscles of the low back are constantly overactive. These muscles impart direct compression to the joints of the low back during activities that high levels of muscle activity and joint loading are not required. Having the low back musculature working constantly to keep the back straight at all times is akin to red-lining your car, after a while it will fatigue!
To summarise, the purpose of this piece is to promote natural movement of the spine, utilising the full range of motion available to us and dispelling misconceptions about spinal mechanics. There are times however, when it is important to recruit the musculature to maintain a strong, neutral spine and this is when the back is being placed under external load. This does not mean that bending the back in other situations is unhealthy, I think we have explored that it is in fact built to bend!
If you have back pain it is important to be professionally assessed in order to identify the specific factors related to you and your pain. This allows for the development of an individualised treatment program facilitating your return to being pain free. So book in today to start your path back to being 100%!
1. Dankaerts W, O’Sullivan PB, Burnett A, Straker L. Differences in Sitting
Postures are Associated With Nonspecific Chronic Low Back Pain Disorders
When Patients Are Subclassified. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2006 Mar
2. O’Sullivan PB. Diagnosis and classification of chronic low back pain disorders:
maladaptive movement and motor control impairments as underlying
mechanism. Man Ther. 2005 Nov;10(4):242-55.