The Remarkable Thing That Actually Freed Me Of Back Pain
I thought the yoga would work.
Or the acupuncture. I was really optimistic about the acupuncture.
Before that, I had high hopes for the physical therapy, hypnosis, new mattress, red light therapy, and special office chair.
It’s not that these remedies failed. Each offered some help — a brief respite from the searing low back pain that had come out of nowhere and attacked me. But none provided any lasting relief.
It was maddening.
I was a healthy person. I’d been active my whole life. Then one night, walking home from dinner, I felt a sharp pain in my lower back. The weather had turned cold suddenly, and I tensed as I walked faster to get to the car.
I barely managed to get myself to bed that night. Every movement brought a new kind of agony, the likes of which I’d never felt before.
An MRI would later reveal that I had two pinched nerves in my back. The orthopedist wrote me a prescription for Prednisone and said that would likely be enough, but I could try acupuncture or physical therapy if it didn’t resolve itself within a week or two.
When it didn’t get better after two weeks, I tried both.
After two months, I went back to the orthopedist. I was still having difficulty with routine tasks. I hadn’t been able to tie my shoes without pain in weeks. Standing to take a shower was challenging. Shaving my legs was unbearable.
The search for solutions
The doctor gave me two more prescriptions — an anti-inflammatory and another steroid — and said that if my back didn’t improve in another few weeks, he would give me a cortisone shot. If that didn’t work, we’d have to consider surgery. And if that didn’t work, I might have to live with the pain for the rest of my life.
The next four months were a rollercoaster of hope and disappointment, as I tried one remedy after another: Omega-3 supplements, turmeric, a new office chair, green tea, infrared therapy, white tea, another steroid, and on and on. Each time, I hoped that this — THIS — would be the solution, the cure.
Some remedies offered relief for hours or even days, but then, inevitably, searing pain in my lower back, behind my knee, and down the side of my calf would return.
And once again, I’d find myself frustrated and feeling foolish for being hopeful, for shelling out hundreds of dollars and thinking that I’d found the answer.
Days became a game of “let’s see how long I can go without taking Tylenol.” I struggled to cook — something I’ve always enjoyed, but most days I gave up after 10 minutes. Attending social events was out of the question. I couldn’t stand for more than five minutes at a time.
I began to consider the shot and the surgery. But the doctor warned they might not work. They were also costly, potentially painful, and would require taking weeks off of work to recover.
A glimmer of hope
In search of alternatives, I came across a mention of something called the Egoscue Method on a health website. Pete Egoscue, a Vietnam veteran, created the method after coming back from the war with chronic nerve pain. He’d tried all the normal medical interventions and none worked. He studied anatomy and theorized that his pain was due to postural alignment imbalances.
Eventually, he was able to cure his pain with a series of special exercises designed to make his body symmetrical. Those exercises are the basis of the Egoscue Method, which is detailed in his book, Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain.
It’s pretty amazing that I now know how to reset my body within 15 minutes.
None of this sounded particularly powerful or sexy to me. But the method didn’t cost thousands of dollars or come with potentially life-threatening side effects, and Egoscue claims a 95% success rate. I also found a small 2014 Brigham Young University study, which showed that Egoscue participants experienced a significant decrease in pain and improvement in functional capacity after performing two weeks of exercises.
The turning point
I got a referral for an Egoscue therapist nearby who took my health history, asked about my pain, and took pictures of me to determine where my alignment problems were. She gave me a menu of exercises to perform every day.
I did the exercises every morning. Yet, nothing really changed. I was getting a little relief, but nothing significant. I still wasn’t doing the things I loved and daily pain was still my norm.
The therapist had a no-nonsense approach that bordered on disinterest. When I asked her questions, she answered in clipped sentences without giving much explanation. I wondered if maybe she just wasn’t right for me. I needed someone who could understand my pain. Since we consulted via Skype for the most part, location didn’t matter. I did another search and found someone new across the country — Maryann Berry.
At the age of 28, Maryann was confined to a wheelchair due to chronic hip pain. She used Egoscue to resolve the pain, and a year later, she was out of the wheelchair. Before that, she was active and vibrant, a surfer and personal trainer. We clicked immediately.
She explained that proper form is crucial to Egoscue. If you aren’t lined up properly, the exercises won’t work. She spent roughly 50% of our sessions ensuring that my body was properly aligned before doing each exercise.
It only took one session with Maryann for me to feel a difference. The pain didn’t go away completely, but I did feel better, and my body felt awake in a new way.
I’m not a medical professional. I haven’t studied anatomy or physiology. But it seems to me that physical therapy targets the symptom of the problem, while Egoscue addresses the root cause.
If my body was a chair that was leaning to one side, physical therapy might put a cushion on me to make the seat more comfortable. Egoscue would repair the legs.
How it works
Many of the Egoscue exercises are similar to yoga and physical therapy, but there are small but crucial differences in the way they are done.
In physical therapy, for example, you’re constantly tightening your stomach so you can build your core. With Egoscue, your stomach is always relaxed. You practice “east west breathing” (really, belly breathing), and the focus is on aligning the hips, knees, ankles, and shoulders.
In yoga, when you do downward dog, the focus is on stretching the hamstrings, calves, and shoulders and lengthening the spine. In Egoscue, downward dog is hip-driven and starts by putting an arch in the lower back. The arch is more important than having your body get into an “A” shape, with a straight line from your hands to your bottom.
When we started working together, Maryann warned me that my problem was a bit of a bear to resolve. However, she said that if I did the exercises every day, preferably first thing in the morning, I would feel relief.
She was right. Within a week, my pain was about 70% gone. In two weeks, it was 90% gone. And by the end of that first month, I was pain free.
Here are some important things I’ve learned about making Egoscue work:
1. Form is critical.
Whether you’re working with an Egoscue therapist, watching Egoscue videos online, or just using the exercises in the Pain Free book, there will be instructions for where your knees, ankles, shoulders, and head should be. There may also be instructions about where to put your hands and hips. Follow these instructions to the letter. These seemingly little things are the big things that make Egoscue work.
2. Do the exercises every day.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Sitting isn’t just bad for your weight; it’s also bad for your body — your joints, your bones, etc. I sit at a computer most of the day. These exercises help counteract that damage.
3. Pay attention to your feet.
Virtually every Egoscue exercise requires that you point your feet straight ahead. I was shocked to learn that straight ahead is really slightly pigeon-toed. This is another one of those seemingly little things that make a big difference.
4. Do the exercises in the order provided.
Egoscue therapists call the sequence of exercises a “menu.” They are designed to be performed in a certain order. I believe that’s because one exercise might align your hips in a way that helps you get the most benefit out of the next exercise. I’m not an expert, but that has certainly worked for me.
5. Don’t stop doing other exercises or activities you enjoy.
I kept asking Maryann if it was okay to swim, or if I should do more strength training. She explained that it isn’t the type of exercise that is good or bad, it is the body you bring to that exercise that matters. In other words, if your body is aligned properly, you can do all of your favorite exercises and activities.
I’ve noticed that the way I exercise has changed dramatically since I began Egoscue. My hips and legs are more even, so I walk differently. I also swim and lift weights differently.
One year later
It’s been nearly a year since that awful cold day when my back gave out, and I still do my Egoscue exercises every morning.
I’ve noticed that I no longer have aches or pains when I get out of bed in the morning. That is a nice bonus (although my fancy new mattress might have something to do with that, too).
I do still get sore in my neck and shoulders occasionally, especially if I’ve been sitting or standing for a long time. When that happens, I do a few exercises, and the pain goes away.
It’s pretty amazing that I now know how to reset my body within 15 minutes. I assume that’s because I’ve been consistent about doing the exercises, so even if my body gets out of whack, it doesn’t take long to realign it.
Today, I look and feel healthier overall. And if I ever think about skipping my morning posture exercises, I just remember the pain I felt that cold day. That’s usually enough to get me into my yoga pants!
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