If exercise or fitness makes headlines, it’s usually something peculiar. After all, if someone wrote an article entitled “Exercise Linked to Fitness”, or “TV-Watching Insufficient Training for Olympic Marathon”, it would probably not bubble up to the top. As such, the only fitness article that the average person sees is either something really extreme (Aardvarks Achieve Excellent Results on South Beach Diet), or something that contradicts conventional wisdom.
We see the latter in the latest headlines, which tout a study that claims that good posture does not prevent back pain. Not having read the methodology of the study, I can’t comment directly on its findings. But I would tend to agree, and would make a somewhat more nuanced statement:
One’s posture does not necessarily cause back pain.
Many of us have been admonished since childhood to sit up and stand up straight, with the idea that it’s better for your back, as well as making you look good. This has been conventional wisdom for so long, that the headlines about the study are quite a surprise to anyone not keeping up with current research.
Having bad posture may indeed be coincident with having back pain, and putting the body into extremely unnatural postures may actually cause back pain. But the problem is that back pain has a wide variety of possible causes: congenital bone structural problems, accidents, weakness of supporting muscles, muscle tension, incorrect alignment of joints, and harmful work and life activities that cause injuries, to name several.
To adequately address the cause of pain, one may need to examine several of these phenomena. This may be complicated and time-consuming, and it’s easier to simply get some pain pills and hope that it works without making any lifestyle changes. In today’s bizarre healthcare environment, physicians are often very overworked and may not be aware of lifestyle approaches to back pain, so it’s hard to hold them at fault. It’s no wonder that pain persists for so many people.
Similarly, I would guess that the authors of the study are well aware of the multiple causes of pain, and probably address them in the study, but it’s easiest for newspaper writers to just make a tantalizing soundbite headline and give a tiny summary of what the study was about. They have space limits, and they may not have knowledge of physiology. As a result, the reader of the soundbite has insufficient context and a very incomplete picture of the study’s findings – they only remember the headline, so they simply decide that they can just ignore Mom’s advice and slouch all they want. And then they’re baffled when they still have back pain, so they finally decide that any article about fitness is bunk.
That’s too bad, because with good advice from a knowledgeable professional, there is real hope of alleviating back pain. I propose a toast to pain reduction in 2007!