Comparing spines of Neandertals with those of humans may give insight into low-back pain

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A recent study by anthropologists at New York University (NYU) suggested that the spine changes between modern day humans and Neanderthals, a contributing factor to low-back pain, were not due to evolutionary changes, but lifestyle changes.

The study, published in PNAS Nexus, was led by Scott Williams, PhD, associate professor at NYU. Past researchers have concluded evolutionary changes led post-industrial humans to have more curved lower spine compared to Neandertals. To study this idea further, Williams and his colleagues examined the lumbar vertebrae of Neanderthals, pre-industrial human spines, and post-industrial human spines, observing more than 300 spines in total.

Judging from the bones, the anthropologists found more lumbar wedging in the spines of post-industrial people than the spines of pre-industrial people. In addition, the spines of Neandertals were relatively similar to those of people from the pre-industrial era, but significantly different from the post-industrial spines.

Researchers attributed differences in lumbar wedging to the changes in lifestyle that took place between the pre- and post-industrial eras.

“Diminished physical activity levels, bad posture, and the use of furniture, among other changes in lifestyle that accompanied industrialization, resulted, over time, in inadequate soft tissue structures to support lumbar lordosis during development,” Williams said in a statement. “To compensate, our lower-back bones have taken on more wedging than our pre-industrial and Neandertal predecessors, potentially contributing to the frequency of lower back pain we find in post-industrial societies.”

Researchers acknowledged that they were not able to examine parts of the lower back made up of muscle and tissue, so no conclusions could me as as to whether Neandertal’s lumbar lordosis was different than that of modern humans. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that human spines have altered over time because of lifestyle changes that resulted in less standing and more sitting, offering new insights into the prevalence and cause of low-back pain.