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What Is the McKenzie Approach to Back Pain?

Learn about the McKenzie Method to treat back pain from physical therapist Eric Sampson in this Howcast video.


The McKenzie Approach is a method of treatment that physical therapists are utilizing more and more in today’s world. It’s an approach that was originally invented by a therapist named Robin McKenzie and he was a therapist that just by luck or by chance observed a major change in a patient’s back condition. Like a lot of inventions, it was almost by accident.

He had a patient with sciatica and it was debilitating and lasting for about ten days, and the therapist was not able to reduce the symptoms with much success. There was one particular day where the therapist was working on a patient and this particular sciatica patient came in a little early. So he had the patient go find a table in the back of the clinic and lie down.

But what the therapist didn’t know was that the table was actually placed in hyperextension due to a previous patient. So the patient was laying on their stomach in hyperextension and at the particular time, extension or hyperextension exercises were considered a no-no in our field for, I guess, arthritic reasons and just the research that was done at that time. But when he addressed the patient who was lying on his stomach, the patient explained to the therapist that his sciatica pain was better.

His sciatica calf and thigh pain had reduced and abolished and that began his approach and his thinking about, “What are we missing in the field and what are we doing wrong in the field? Because if this can happen, why can’t it happen to other patients?” So over a few decades, he fine-tuned the approach and fine-tuned the approach to the point where now he has a classification system, an examination system, and it’s an intense program.

But it does allow the therapist to examine the patient a little differently. And to utilize the skills that were taught by the McKenzie Approach to fix or try to help maintain postural and mechanical problems in the spine that are occurring more and more these days with longer hours of sitting and more stresses at work, and longer commutes, etcetera. It does require a fair amount of outside training and it does require a fair amount of attention to detail. But it does seem to be working quite well in the field of mechanical back problems and disorders.

We are trying to promote the patients to be independent with their care. It’s probably the hallmark of the approach. I think often patients are looking for some sort of a manual technique or a passive modality to relieve their symptoms. But Robin McKenzie and the McKenzie Approach believes that a patient can achieve similar improvement with exercise and stretching and if they do achieve these goals, it is very rewarding for the patient to know that they can do it on their own.

It’s promoting an independence from the healthcare. You do require some care in the beginning to figure out what to do. But once it’s figured out, the patient is often able to tackle their problem on their own.

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