Back Pain May Be The Result Of Bending Over At The Waist Instead Of The Hips : Shots - Health News No, we're not talking about squatting. We're talking about a way to bend over that has nearly disappeared in our culture. And it could be one reason why back pain is so common in the U.S.

Lost Art Of Bending Over: How Other Cultures Spare Their Spines

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Here's something people do every day that many of us apparently do wrong - bending over, you know, to pick things up or put things down or even just to sit down. Now, a group of scientists who study bending say Americans are doing it in a way that may make back pain more common. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: We're going to start off with an experiment. Our guide is Jean Couch who's been helping people in Palo Alto, Calif., get out of back pain for 25 years. She says stand up.

JEAN COUCH: Put your hands on your waist.

DOUCLEFF: Now imagine something on the ground in front of you, like a feather.

COUCH: If I said pick up a feather, usually everybody the first thing they move is their head.

DOUCLEFF: And you look down.

COUCH: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: That little look down is already making you bend in the wrong way - at the waist.

COUCH: And right away, they've begun to bend the spine.

DOUCLEFF: Oh, yeah, my stomach crunched.

COUCH: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: Which makes our backs curve into a C shape. Like...

COUCH: Really folded cashews.

DOUCLEFF: Cashews. In other words, when we bend, we kind of look like nuts - cashew nuts. Seriously, though, in many parts of the world, people don't look this way when they bend. Instead, you see something very different. I first noticed it back in 2014 while covering the Ebola outbreak. I was in eastern Liberia, and women working in their gardens were bending over in a way I had never seen before. Their backs were perfectly flat, and they weren't squatting with a vertical back. No, their backs were horizontal, parallel to the ground. Their backs looked like tables. I started noticing this type of bending in many rural places - women planting rice in Madagascar, men picking up mangoes in Nepal. The bending seemed to be everywhere except here.

STUART MCGILL: The anthropologists have noted exactly what you're saying for years.

DOUCLEFF: That's Stuart McGill at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. He studies the biomechanics of the spine and says people make this table with their back because they're doing a special type of bending called...

MCGILL: Hip hinge.

DOUCLEFF: Hip hinge.

MCGILL: Focusing more of the motion around the hip joint.

DOUCLEFF: Do you think that this is more optimal than the way we bend over?

MCGILL: Oh, absolutely.

DOUCLEFF: McGill says when people been with the C shape in their back like we do, they're bending their spine.

MCGILL: That puts more stress on the spinal discs.

DOUCLEFF: Those little rings of collagen between the vertebrae. McGill says discs aren't the strongest part of our body. They're kind of like a delicately woven fabric.

MCGILL: If you took a cloth and you kept bending it and stressing it over and over again, the fibers of the weave of the cloth start to loosen up and delaminate.

DOUCLEFF: And eventually over time, this fabric can fray. That puts you at risk of slipping a disc. But when you hip hinge, or make the table with your back, your spine stays straight, and the bending occurs at your hip joint, which is the king of motion.

MCGILL: The hips are ball-and-socket joints. They are designed to have maximum movement, lots of muscle force, et cetera.

DOUCLEFF: In other words, your boots may be made for walking, but your hips are made for bending. But most of us aren't using them that way.

MCGILL: So this wisdom of movement really has been lost in our society.

DOUCLEFF: Lost but not totally forgotten. There are a few places where you still see a lot of hip hinging today. Weightlifters use it when they do what's called a deadlift. And...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Evans powering his way forward.

DOUCLEFF: Yep, football.



DOUCLEFF: Players kneel at the line of scrimmage with beautiful hip hinging. D.J. Kennedy is a spine specialist at Stanford University and a former weightlifter. He says doctors don't know enough about hip hinging to say whether or not it will prevent back pain or injuries.

D J KENNEDY: We don't have these randomized trials where we put people lifting things hundreds of times and see how their body responds to it. But I think it intuitively makes sense from how the spine functions.

DOUCLEFF: And so do you hip hinge?

KENNEDY: I try. When I lift weights, I'm very mindful of my form. So I try very hard to do it.

DOUCLEFF: Personally, for me, it took a few months to learn how to hip hinge, but once I got the hang of it, I'm never going back to looking like a cashew. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.


INSKEEP: To learn how to hip hinge, go online to NPR's health blog, Shots.


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