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Stretching, relaxation, posture help banish back pain

By Jack Kelly

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Published: Friday, July 29 2011 10:29 p.m. MDT

There's nothing like pain to motivate you, says Esther Gokhale, when she discusses what set her off on a life of research on aching backs and how to fix them.

"I had very serious back problems when I was pregnant with my first child. It was extremely painful. I was up every two hours at night."

Gokhale went to doctors. She had back surgery. It didn't help. So, she said, "I was very motivated to think outside the box and find another solution."

The solution she found has kept her free of back pain for 20 years. The Gokhale Method, she said, also can help you slim down and tighten up your butt and could make you as much as an inch taller. Gokhale has a degree in biochemistry from Princeton and a degree in Chinese medicine from the San Francisco College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She's taken additional courses in anthropology, anatomy and physiology at Stanford University. She grew up in India, where she studied yoga.

What she found in her research is that we've forgotten how to sit, stand, sleep and walk the way our ancestors did. As a consequence, Americans are 10 times more likely to have back pain than are people in traditional societies. She found that in Chad, only 5 percent of people suffer from back pain. In America, 85 percent of us will complain about it at one time or another in our lifetimes.

"Both manual laborers and sedentary workers from Burkina Faso (in western Africa), villages in Brazil and rural Portugal have not forgotten how to sit, stand, walk and sleep in harmony with their body's design," Gokhale said.

"Posture is a cultural matter," she said. "In transplanting ourselves away from our origins, we lose some of the cultural wisdom. Our grandparents aren't around for us to copy."

Our basic posture problem is we scrunch up too much, Gokhale said. We need to stretch more, to elongate our spines.

"We tend to sit on our tails, which then sets us up either for being relaxed in a slump or upright and tense," Gokhale said. "What we really want is to be upright and relaxed."

"We sleep scrunched and compressed," she said. "What I teach people is to lengthen their spines as they prepare to sleep. Beginning with your elbows, you should lay yourself down one vertebrae (the 24 bones of the spine) at a time."

Gokhale established the Esther Gokhale Wellness Center in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1992 to teach others what she'd learned.

Her method is based on sound scientific principles, said Gary Chimes, director of the Musculoskeletal Sports and Spine Fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine. "For the appropriate subset of patients, it could be very helpful."

That subset is very large. "Almost everybody with low back pain has postural problems," Chimes said. "It is fairly unusual to find an American who doesn't have these problems."

But the Gokhale Method is not unique, he said. "There are other things out there that are like it."

One, the Alexander Technique was developed by the Australian actor Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s. Alexander suffered from laryngitis, which doctors couldn't cure. He discovered his problem was caused by excess tension in his neck and body. He devised changes in his movement habits that released that tension.

The Bobath Concept was developed by Berta (a physiotherapist) and Karel (a psychiatrist/neurophysiologist) Bobath from their work to restore normal movement in stroke patients.

And Pilates, developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, is a system of exercise that emphasizes development of core strength and flexibility to support efficient, graceful movement. It is by far the best known of these techniques.

The most important consideration in determining which one will work best for you is the quality of the instructor, Chimes said.

Barbara Swan, director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Allegheny General Hospital in Pennsylvania, agreed with Chimes that Gokhale's method is based on sound principles, but added: "I am always skeptical of something that claims to cure back pain. If there were something that is as effective as they say, we'd all be doing it."

But, she added, "It's not going to hurt anybody. And anything that gets people to exercise is not bad."

(Contact reporter Jack Kelly at jkelly(at)post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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