How Does the McKenzie Method Treat Back and Neck Problems?

You may have heard that the McKenzie Method is sometimes used by practitioners as a way of treating neck and back problems. The practitioners who use it know that it’s more than just a set of exercises for back pain. It’s also a specific approach to treatment spinal problems.

Simply stated, the McKenzie Method includes:

  • Initial assessment procedures for back pain
  • Treatment for back problems, including special procedures and self-help where indicated
  • Prevention strategies for back problems

In this article, we’ll explain what the McKenzie Method is and how it’s used to relieve pain associated with neck and back problems.

What is the McKenzie Method?

The McKenzie Method of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy, or MDT, was created by a physiotherapist from New Zealand named Robin McKenzie.

There are four key steps to the McKenzie Method. Here’s a breakdown of how they work:

  1. The assessment involves the practitioner taking a thorough history of the patient’s pain and symptoms. The patient may be asked to perform movement and assume positions to aid in the diagnosis. It’s a diagnostic method that usually doesn’t require an X-ray or MRI because it’s based on movement and an in-depth conversation with the patient.
  2. The classification involves assigning the patient to one of three classifications based on their symptoms and responses during the initial assessment. The classifications include: Postural syndromes – back or neck pain caused by the continued stress of the patient’s soft tissues while maintaining certain positions or postures. Derangement syndromes – back pain that’s caused by a change in position of the vertebrae due to re-positioning of the fluid nucleus of a disc. Dysfunction syndromes – intermittent back pain caused by scar tissue in a shortened state. The pain occurs when the tissues are stressed.
  3. The treatment phase involves the practitioner recommending specific exercises to do and postures to assume or avoid. While it’s rare, some severe mechanical problems may also require hands-on treatment from the practitioner.
  4. The prevention phase occurs after the pain has been alleviated. The practitioner provides the patient with advice to prevent the recurrence of pain as well as future injuries.

It’s typical for the recommended exercises to gradually centralize and then reduce the pain caused by the back or neck injury. The McKenzie Method is seen as a non-invasive and minimalistic method for treating back pain.

Who Can Benefit from the McKenzie Method?

The McKenzie Method can help many people who experience chronic or acute back or neck pain. The McKenzie Institute provides a list of self-assessment questions to help you determine whether you should talk to a provider about the McKenzie Method.

  • Have you had more than one episode of neck or lower back pain in the past two years?
  • Does your pain increase immediately after a prolonged period of bending or stooping?
  • Do you feel worse when you sit for long periods or when you stand from a sitting position?
  • Do you associate your pain with one activity and generally feel good when you’re not participating in that activity?
  • Is your pain reduced when you’re lying face down? (There may be a brief period when the pain worsens, but if it then dissipates, you should answer yes.)
  • Are there periods in the day when you have no pain at all?
  • Is the pain occurring mostly above your knees or above your elbows?
  • Do you feel better when you’re on the move than you do when you’re inactive?
  • Does your lower back pain feel better when you’re walking?

In general, if you answered yes to four or more of these questions, the chances are high that you will benefit from the McKenzie Method.

About the McKenzie Institute

The McKenzie Institute was founded by physical therapists in New Zealand in 1982. The organization still has its international headquarters in New Zealand, but it now has branches in 26 countries around the globe.

Each branch provides services and training to practitioners who want to learn the McKenzie Method. The organization offers both a certification program and a diploma program. If you want to try the McKenzie Method, the McKenzie Institute recommends that you seek out a practitioner who’s received training from them and has a certification or diploma.

You can find a McKenzie Method provider in your area by visiting the McKenzie Institute’s list of providers, which you can find here. Remember, if your pain meets the criteria we listed above, you may be a good candidate for the non-invasive McKenzie Method.

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