This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 36 – January 1999
We all started life bent double. Cramped for space, we had to adopt a humble position to fit in our uterine home. Curled up, bowed and rounded was our foetal posture. We had food, warmth and a roof, but no room to swing a cat. Eventually came the day when we could not bear this restricted environment any longer – we moved out.
But leaving the womb to walk upon the earth is not an easy task. Through our progression from extra-uterine to adult life we seem to be pulled back towards the original foetal position: the bent posture of old age. But a closer look reveals that the slouching posture so common in adulthood is the opposite of the embryonic posture. Let’s examine the evolution of the curves in our spines to see if we can make sense of its tortuous life.
In its embryonic stage our spinal column has the appearance of the letter “C”. Soon after birth, the “C” progressively elongates until two new curves develop in our back, forming two hollows. The first curvature to appear is in the neck. As babies it was so boring gazing at our own navels that we decided to raise our heads from our chests and hold them erect. Thus was born the cervical curvature.
The second curvature developed in our lower back. It was initiated when we started to crawl, and became fully developed when we mastered the art of standing and walking upright.
Normally we have two hollows and one hump in our backs. The hump is called kyphosis, the hollows are called lordoses. The kyphosis (situated in the region of the shoulder-blades) is the only part of the spine that has kept its original convexity, a remnant of our once bowed spine. Our kyphosis is simply the junction between our lordoses.
These curves in our spines are normal (or physiological) but they easily become abnormal. When our curviform spine gets too curvy specialists speak of hyperlordosis and hyperkyphosis; the nonprofessional, who prefer plain words, speak of hollow and round backs.
Sometimes, the kyphosis disappears and the spine presents a total lordosis. In other cases, the curves are reversed: the kyphosis takes the place of the lumbar lordosis and vice versa. Although other distortions of the spine exist, let’s concentrate on the hollows and the humps.
The problem is that we have wandering curves which like to play hide-and-seek. The lordosis is a great escapologist, like a Houdini it disappears easily, only to reappear where you don’t expect it. It is easy, for example, to flatten the lower back (to erase the lumbar lordosis); not so easy to see that it has slipped somewhere else along the spine. It can even move into the lower limbs. To see the erratic lordosis in action you need to keep your eyes peeled.
Suppress the hollow in the small of your back and I bet it will migrate into the nape of your neck. Chase it away from there and it might escape in the middle of your back, or behind your knees, or in the sole of your feet. You never know in advance what to expect from this tricky customer: now you see it, now you don’t.
According to Mézières, my mentor in bodywork, lordoses are the cause of all our physical imperfections and distortions. Lordoses are superior in numbers; are jealously protected by many strong muscles which tighten at the drop of a hat; and are a necessary result of our bipedal uprightness. The more we misuse our uprightness, the greater are the lordoses. Moreover, our limbs’ movements, beyond a certain amplitude, invariably increases our lordoses. It is this deepening of the hollows in our back that causes our back and related pains. What a lot of problems they can cause!
Yet, therapists have generally paid a lot more attention to the round back than to the hollow one. Generations of bodyworkers have attempted to straighten round backs – in vain. But their wild-goose chase made the hollows grow painfully and horribly deeper.
It is always easier to bend the spine backwards than forwards. Actually, it is practically impossible to bend the spine forward into a uniform curve, and the forward flexion of the spine is extremely limited if you suppress the lordoses. The paradox is: the more lordotic you are, the more you look hunched. Therefore, the correct treatment for hunchback is to lengthen the hollows, not to straighten the bump.
If you ask someone with a so-called round back to lie on it, you will see that only few thoracic vertebrae (from one to four) are in contact with the floor (even “normal” people will find these hollows, try it for yourself). Below and above this hump you will see two huge hollows, so deep that sometimes the head cannot even touch the floor. The round back is mostly an illusion created by round shoulders, where the back is hunched, not from front to back, but from side to side. And, if you look carefully, you will see that the cervical lordosis has spread downwards, hiding between the shoulder-blades. So well hidden is it that round shoulders commonly pass for round backs (kyphosis). The only true (and rare) hunchback is the one caused by deformation of the bones.
In the “bent posture of old age” it is not the spine that is flexed but the torso as a whole, at the hips joints. On close examination it will be seen that the spine is mostly lordotic. So, forget the humps and bumps, but watch out for the hollows.