The jigsaw puzzle of pain in the United States has a whopping piece missing. This piece impacts millions of adults and kids, contributes to costs greater than cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined and has repercussions for every future generation. Now lost, the part was actually in our hands a century ago.
Of American men rejected for military service by the end of the First World War in 1918, some 40 percent were for reasons associated with poor posture. An alarmed President Hoover turned to Harvard Medical School's distinguished Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Robert Osgood. Osgood’s resulting report to the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health advised that every child in the United States undertake postural education and correction in grades 1 through 7. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, Osgood wanted all physicians, nurses and physical education teachers to have a basic understanding of posture incorporated as a mandatory part of their training.
Osgood's recommendations were built on the work of Jessie Bancroft. Bancroft's 1913 book The Posture of School Children resulted in the establishment of The American Posture League. In schools across the United States, this organization implemented detailed standards for postural education.
Meanwhile, in London around the same time, another remarkable person of a similar vintage had come to parallel conclusions about the relationship between habitual posture and health. F.M. Alexander discovered that how we sit, stand and move throughout our day and throughout our life often causes or worsens bone, muscle and joint pain. His ingenious response was to devise a safe, easy-to-learn and practical method, the Alexander Technique, which stops pain by changing our postural habits.
Few physicians and nurses understand that poor habitual posture fosters back, neck and shoulder problems, migraines as well as hip and knee pain and repetitive strain injuries. To add insult to injury, these health professionals are often ineffectively equipped to respond when they do see the connection. This is not their fault. The blame lies with their training, our myopic obsession with drugs and elective surgery and the breathtaking sterility of the nation’s health protection agency, the CDC.
The pharmaceutical industry’s blindness to the import of habitual posture should surprise no-one. What is astonishing is that US insurance companies do not value the economics of postural pain prevention, in contrast to some European counterparts. These US insurers would do well to follow the money. Lost productivity and medical care from pain is costing corporate America up to $635 billion annually; more than the yearly costs of cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined. If US business only knew that supremely cost-effective ways exist to get people back to work pain-free and more productive than ever.
A hundred years after Bancroft's work there is no universal postural education of children in American schools. Adults in pain are routinely prescribed fatally addictive opioid medications. Sufferers with eminently treatable and preventable conditions are almost never guided to safe and effective postural health solutions. This scenario is a personal tragedy for many of those 50 million American adults suffering with acute and chronic pain. For our slouched and screen-preoccupied children and grandchildren, it is a catastrophe in the making.
"Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it", Winston Churchill remarked. People like Bancroft, Osgood and Alexander had a profound understanding of the relationship between posture and health. They appreciated the balance between therapy and education, between prevention and cure and between mind and body. When it comes to the effective treatment of pain in the United States, it is beyond high-time that the jigsaw piece of posture is rediscovered and placed in its rightful position.
We do not have another century to waste.