Fifty years ago, at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune on the coast of North Carolina, Pete Egoscue began a quiet revolution in understanding our body’s posture and its relationship to pain.
It would be another seven years before he got his first clients, and another 11 before he opened his first clinic in San Diego. Today, he has 30 clinics across the world, millions of clients (including an impressive roster of professional athletes) functioning pain-free, and six best-selling books to his credit, with a seventh due out this week, a revised and updated version of his first, Pain Free.
But it was 50 years ago that he figured out why, despite a year of medical treatment for wounds incurred in Vietnam, he was still in pain and, with that knowledge, began developing the Egoscue Method by which he has helped so many, including himself, become pain-free.
As he writes in this latest book, indeed in all of his books, “Humans are designed as symmetrical bipeds.” Which means we should be symmetrical from side to side, that is, one shoulder or hip should not be higher than the other. We should also be aligned vertically, which is to say that in profile, there should be a straight line from our ears to our ankle bones that runs through the center of our shoulders, hips, and knees.
That is not the case with most of us, and it wasn’t the case with Egoscue 50 years ago. We have eight load-bearing joints—shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles—and he realized that when one of those joints is out of position, some other part of the body has to compensate to enable us to function, which led him to a major discovery that too many medical professionals today still ignore: The source of the pain is rarely the source of the problem.
For an event like a car accident or broken bone, yes, the source and site of the pain are the same, but for the chronic musculoskeletal pain that more than 50 percent of all Americans suffer from, the source and site are different and are the result of one part of the body compensating for what another part can no longer do. For instance, if you have back pain, it’s probably because your hip is out of alignment. And yet, most remedies for back pain treat the back, perhaps alleviating the symptom of pain but never addressing the actual source, and therefore never fixing the original problem.
That’s what Egoscue spent years figuring out how exactly to do. Knowing that “bones do what muscles tell them to do,” he experimented with an array of stretches and exercises designed to get our muscles to move our joints back into their proper position. Egoscue had learned that when our hips are where they’re supposed to be, our back stops hurting. Or when our ankles are functioning the way they’re designed to, our knees stop hurting. Or when our shoulder can move as it was intended, we no longer get tennis elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome. It took time for him to learn how muscles move joints, but eventually he learned enough to develop the Egoscue Method, his revolutionary program to return our postures to their original design and thereby relieve ourselves of chronic pain.
Egoscue explores all of this anatomical and physiological information in his expansive new Pain Free, the revised and updated edition of his 1999 best-seller. The book is written in such engagingly accessible prose that one needn’t be a PhD in either field to readily grasp what he’s saying. But much of this information has been available since he wrote his first book decades ago. Why the revision?
“When I wrote my other six books,” he says, “we had a stronger tradition of self-reliance in our country. But we’ve lost a lot of that. We’re more isolated as individuals now than we’ve ever been before, and since the advent of social media, we’ve become more reliant upon the opinion of others in everything, including our pain. We’ve succumbed to this idea that somebody else knows more about our bodies than we do. That’s just not true. But we have to convince people now in ways we’ve never had to before that they really do have the capacity to relieve themselves of their pain.”
That gentle convincing explains, in part, the warmer tone in this updated version: less clinical, more consoling and encouraging.
But he also wrote this revision because, as a society, we are in a different place than we were when he first devised the Egoscue Method—and that place isn’t good. “Many Americans now are physically weak, and by weak, I mean they have lost the ability to remain upright,” Egoscue says. “It’s astonishing to me how many people cannot stand on one foot and, sadly, don’t even know they’re supposed to be able to. We have lost postural stability. Forty years ago, we could treat clients by focusing on strength because they were still stable. Now, we have to stabilize them first before we can strengthen them.” The culprit here is our sedentary lives.
As Egoscue points out in the book, “In the 1920s, manual workers outnumbered knowledge workers by a ratio of 2:1. By 1980, that ratio was reversed.” All that sitting impacts our postures and leads to pain.
“Evolution didn’t stop once we got upright,” Egoscue explains. “It continues, and our evolving, or de-evolving, depends upon the stimulus of our environment.” Right now, for too many, that stimulus doesn’t involve movement. Sadly, that affects more than just our bodies, a mind-body relationship that Egoscue also explores in this book. “We know that exercise improves our endurance, strength, and cardiovascular health,” he writes, “but movement is also directly connected to feelings of hope, happiness, connection, and confidence.”
The book also contains testimonials from beneficiaries of the Egoscue Method, some famous, some not, including a wonderful foreword from NFL Hall-of-Famer John Lynch, who gives a share of the credit for his success to Egoscue. “Quite simply,” Lynch writes, “Egoscue is the most brilliant person I have ever encountered when it comes to the human body and unleashing its vast potential.” When Lynch was hired as general manager for the San Francisco 49ers, he immediately incorporated the Egoscue Method into the team’s fitness regimen.
And of course, the book incorporates menus of E-cises (Egoscue exercises) to address the issues in your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders that are causing pain elsewhere in your body or reducing its ability to function at its full potential. The menus come with pictures and detailed explanations to make sure you’re doing the E-cises correctly.
Egoscue is notoriously reluctant to discuss himself, but when asked to reflect on his accomplishments these past 50 years, he said that his favorite fact is that he’s created competition. “You can imagine the ridicule and scorn I endured when I started talking about posture as a source of most of our pain. But now that thinking permeates the healthcare world, and we have competitors, and I think that’s wonderful. We’re figuring it all out together, and in the end, that can only benefit us all.”
True enough. But it all started with Egoscue 50 years ago, and this newest edition of Pain Free (available on Amazon) is the ideal commemoration of how far we’ve come in our understanding of the relationship between our posture and our pain.