McKenzie Back Exercises

In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan.


The McKenzie back exercises belong to an exercise protocol pioneered by physiotherapist Robin Anthony McKenzie in the 1950s and popularized around 1985. The McKenzie method, also known as Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy (MDT), is widely used as a classification system for the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of musculoskeletal conditions, including lower back, neck, and extremity pain. Over time the McKenzie exercises have become synonymous with spinal extension exercises, as opposed to Williams exercises (named after Dr. Paul C. Williams) which have become synonymous with lumbar flexion exercises.

The McKenzie method has wide acceptance as an effective program for back pain. It stresses self-treatment through posture correction and repeated exercise movements at end-range performed with high frequency. The hallmark of the McKenzie method for back pain involves the identification and classification of nonspecific spinal pain into homogenous subgroups. These subgroups are based on the similar responses of a patient's symptoms when subjected to mechanical forces. The subgroups include postural syndrome, dysfunction syndrome, derangement syndrome, or “other,” with treatment plans directed to each subgroup. The McKenzie method emphasizes the centralization phenomenon in the assessment and treatment of spinal pain, in which pain originating from the spine refers distally, and through targeted repetitive movements the pain migrates back toward the spine. The clinician will then use the information obtained from this assessment to prescribe specific exercises and advise on which postures to adopt or avoid. Through an individualized treatment program, the patient will perform specific exercises at home approximately ten times per day, as opposed to 1 or 2 physical therapy visits per week. According to the McKenzie method, if there is no restoration of normal function, tissue healing will not occur, and the problem will persist.


The postural syndrome is pain which is caused by mechanical deformation of soft tissue or vasculature arising from prolonged postural stresses. These may affect the joint surfaces, muscles, or tendons, and can occur in sitting, standing or lying. Pain may be reproducible when such individuals maintain positions or postures for sustained periods. Repeated movements should not affect symptoms, and relief of pain typically occurs immediately following the correction of abnormal posture.

The dysfunction syndrome is pain which is caused by the mechanical deformation of structurally impaired soft tissue; this may be due to traumatic, inflammatory, or degenerative processes, causing tissue contraction, scarring, adhesion, or adaptive shortening. The hallmark is a loss of movement and pain at the end range of motion. Dysfunction has subsyndromes based upon the end-range direction that elicits this pain: flexion, extension, side-glide, multidirectional, adherent nerve root, and nerve root entrapment subsyndromes. Successful treatment focuses on patient education and mobilization exercises that focus on the direction of the dysfunction/direction of pain. The goal is on tissue remodeling which can be a prolonged process.

The derangement syndrome is the most commonly encountered pain syndrome, reported in one study to have a prevalence as high as 78% of patients classified by the McKenzie method. It is caused by an internal dislocation of articular tissue, causing a disturbance in the normal position of affected joint surfaces, deforming the capsule, and periarticular supportive ligaments. This derangement will both generate pain and obstruct movement in the direction of the displacement. There are seven different subsyndromes which are classified by the location of pain and the presence, or absence, of deformities. Pain is typically elicited by provocative assessment movements, such as flexion or extension of the spine. The centralization and peripheralization of symptoms can only occur in the derangement syndrome. Thus the treatment for derangement syndrome focuses on repeated movement in a single direction that causes a gradual reduction in pain. Studies have shown approximately anywhere between 58% to 91% prevalence of centralization of lower back pain. Studies have also shown that between 67% to 85% of centralizers displayed the directional preference for a spinal extension. This preference may partially explain why the McKenzie method has become synonymous with spinal extension exercises. However, care must be taken to accurately diagnose the direction of pain, as one randomized controlled study has shown that giving the ‘wrong’ direction of exercises can actually lead to poorer outcomes.

Other or Nonmechanical syndrome refers to any symptom that does not fit in with the other mechanical syndromes, but exhibit signs and symptoms of other known pathology; Some of these examples include spinal stenosis, sacroiliac disorders, hip disorders, zygapophyseal disorders, post-surgical complications, low back pain secondary to pregnancy, spondylolysis, and spondylolisthesis.

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