Many people know about the McKenzie Method of physical therapy and exercise for back pain or neck pain, but aren’t sure exactly what the goals of the program are and what the exercises entail.
A common perception is that the McKenzie approach comprises a set of exercises that people can do on their own. While this is true, the McKenzie Method is really an overall program of assessment, treatment and prevention strategies (including exercise) that are usually best learned with a physical therapist who is trained in the method.
Overall Goals for Healing from Back Problems that Cause Pain
The McKenzie Method was developed in the 1960’s by Robin McKenzie, a physical therapist in New Zealand. In his practice, he noted that extending the spine could provide significant pain relief to certain patients and allow them to return to their normal daily activities.
With the McKenzie approach, physical therapy and exercise used to extend the spine can help "centralize" the patient’s pain by moving it away from the extremities (leg or arm) to the back. Back pain is usually better tolerated than leg pain or arm pain, and the theory of the approach is that centralizing the pain allows the source of the pain to be treated rather than the symptoms.
A central tenet of the McKenzie Method is that self-healing and self-treatment are important for the patient’s pain relief and rehabilitation. No passive modalities—such as heat, cold, ultrasound, medicine or needles—are used in the treatment.
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The long-term goal of the McKenzie Method is to teach patients suffering from neck pain and/or back pain how to treat themselves and manage their own pain for life using exercise and other strategies. Other goals include:
- Reduce pain quickly
- Return to normal functioning in daily activities
- Minimize the risk of recurring pain (avoid painful postures and movements)
- Minimize the number of return visits to the spine specialist
The movement of pain from the extremities to the back will not occur with all patients. The McKenzie Method is designed to help patients where the pain does "centralize." Also, for some patients, such as those with lumbar spinal stenosis or facet joint osteoarthritis, extending the spine may actually increase their pain.