The McKenzie Method – Mechanical Diagnosis & Therapy (MDT)

If you’ve ever had joint pain, this situation may be familiar to you: every family member, friend, and coworker has the time-honoured “magic solution” to get you better. Whether it’s heat, medication, meditation, or dousing yourself in honey, everyone has a suggestion. One you may have heard about is doing “McKenzie exercises” to recover. What are these exercises? Are they effective? How does it work?

“Mechanical Diagnosis & Therapy” or MDT

Also known as Mechanical Diagnosis & Therapy (MDT), the McKenzie Method is a comprehensive assessment system for orthopedic conditions such as back pain or shoulder pain, and is more than just a series of exercises. It allows the assessor to reliably classify you into different subgroups so that the right treatment can be applied. Practitioners need to understand you and your condition before they can hope to begin any treatment. It’s just like taking your car into the mechanic when something is malfunctioning – a good mechanic will take the time to ask you what the problem is (what are the symptoms?), and then will run tests to determine the source of the problem (does it hurt if you move that way?). You can’t expect the repairs to be made immediately – careful diagnosis is required first.

The McKenzie Method system was developed by New Zealand physiotherapist Robin McKenzie in the 1950s and 60s. One day he had a patient with back pain radiating down to his foot come in and he told him to go lie down on an unoccupied bed. Little did Robin know, the top half of the bed was at an angle, so the patient laid face-down on the bed with his back in maximum extension (like the cobra position in yoga). At the time the conventional wisdom was this was a terrible position for back pain. However, when Robin asked the patient how he was doing, he remarked that the leg pain had disappeared. This was so contrary to all his teachings that it inspired him to begin experimenting with different postures and movements and making careful observations with his patients. Patterns began to emerge, and he realized that these patterns could apply to all joints of the body.

McKenzie Method Today

Today the McKenzie Method is practiced globally by rehabilitation professionals of many backgrounds. Since its humble beginnings in New Zealand, it has been supported by numerous scientific publications around the world. Despite this, it is not a universally adopted system. Because the emphasis is first on understanding the problem at its root, which may take several sessions to achieve, it is at odds with the “treatment first” approach. Too often in rehabilitation the approach is to treat the symptoms with modalities such as heat or electrical stimulation, as opposed to getting an understanding of the cause. Fortunately, when the cause is identified using MDT, treatment can be very effective.

The majority of musculoskeletal problems are mechanical in nature – they are affected by movement. Mechanical problems require mechanical solutions, and often it is simply a matter of finding the right direction and force to move into. For example, a person with knee pain might respond to repeated knee straightening movements and have less pain and improved squatting mechanics as a result. If the right movement is applied regularly and aggravating factors are avoided, then rapid improvement is seen, often in a matter of days. Most people can treat themselves once they know what to do – patient independence is one of the central philosophies of MDT. This saves time and eliminates the need for long courses of treatment with many visits. Additionally, you will be shown how to prevent future episodes from occurring, and how to self-treat if the pain does happen to return.

So, the next time that shoulder starts to ache or your knee starts to lock up, instead of using the old family remedies, try looking up a certified McKenzie practitioner. The solution to your problem may be simpler than you think. York Rehab’s Newmarket Physiotherapy clinic has the most therapists certified in McKenzie treatment in Ontario.

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