Exact Same Knee Pain…Different Causes

When you’re told you need to go see a physiotherapist, what do you think of? You may think of stretching, strengthening, heat/ice, ultrasound, endurance training, balance exercises, or electrical stimulation. All these thoughts fall under the category of treatment. What you may not consider is your physiotherapist as a diagnostician. Therapists who are trained in Mechanical Diagnosis & Therapy, also known as the McKenzie Method, are diagnosticians first and foremost. The three cases presented below illustrate this point – all three patients came in with pain in the front of their knees, but the underlying reason for each pain was different and demanded unique management strategies.

The first patient was a 14-year-old female who had right knee pain episodically for the past 2 years – at the time of assessment she had it for 1 month. It was painful when bending, standing, squatting, lunging, and sometimes when sitting, walking, and negotiating stairs, and prevented her from participating in karate. The history and physical exam indicated it could be a typical knee problem, but in the McKenzie Method the lumbar spine (lower back) is first assessed for any contribution – spinal conditions can refer in unusual ways to the extremity. Ultimately it was found that repetitive lumbar extension brought about relief from her knee pain, which she was easily able to do at home, and after some reconditioning exercises, she made a full return to karate.

The second patient was a 60-year-old male who had pain in both knees for a year after a day of heavy ladder use at work. The pain was there mostly when getting out of a chair and walking the first few steps, and also sometimes with squatting. As with the patient above, his lower back was assessed for any contribution and was ruled out because of no change to his presentation. His knees were then assessed with repetitive movement testing. Repetitive straightening (hyperextension) caused a significant reduction in his squatting pain. Within a week of performing this exercise 4-5 times per day, he was 90% free of pain with full movement and strength.

The third patient was a 39-year-old male who had right knee pain intermittently for 2 years after doing some moving; going up and down stairs and squatting were his two most painful activities. As above, his lumbar spine was assessed first, which had no effect on his presentation, so it was ruled out. Repeated knee movements also had no lasting effect but it was found that repetitive straightening of his knee with an ankle weight consistently produced his pain. This pain did not remain afterward. This presentation is consistent with a dysfunction or suboptimal healing of the patellar tendon. Consistent remodeling of his tendon via progressive resistance exercises over two months proved to steadily diminish his pain. He was able to go up and down stairs without pain at that point and had made a return to biking.

The three cases outlined above all had frontal knee pain, but for different reasons: one was due to a lower back joint problem, one was due to a knee joint problem, and the last was the result of a patellar tendon dysfunction. These diagnoses were sorted out following the principles of the McKenzie Method and each patient was given an effective self-management strategy that led to resolution of the problem. Make sure the next time you need to see a physiotherapist that you are given a good mechanical assessment that focuses on understanding the cause of your problem, and not just what can be done to treat the symptoms.

Our Newmarket Physiotherapy clinic has several physiotherapists trained as McKenzie Method practitioners. Our physio clinic also has 2 of only a handful of therapists in Canada who have completed the Diploma Program in Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy (MDT) and the most number of credentialed therapists in an Ontario clinic.

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