I look for direct cause and effect. In most cases, the cause. the intervention, is movement. Movement is usually generated by the patient, but I can use manual techniques if needed. Here’s a simple, common example of how I implement this in the office.
A patient presents with isolated pain on the right shoulder, lateral aspect. History: intermittent pain, pain usually with reaching, no pain at rest, can’t throw, present for 3 months, staying the same, no trauma, notices loss of flexion which can vary. Physical exam: no pain at rest and no cervical or thoracic loss of ROM or pain. Shoulder flexion: moderate loss with pain at end range. Shoulder internal rotation: minimal loss with pain during movement. Concordant pain with resisted abduction and pain-free weakness in external rotation (3+/5). All other shoulder baselines are normal. I don’t regularly do special tests.
Now I want to investigate if there is a particular movement (directional preference exercise) that has a positive effect on those baselines. I test 10 reps of cervical retraction and extension with overpressure: no effect on baselines. I test 10 reps of right lateral cervical flexion with overpressure: no effect. I test 10 reps of thoracic extension with ball overpressure: no effect. I test 10 right shoulder internal rotations (hand behind back): shoulder external rotation improves to 4+/5 and flexion is less painful. We do 20 more internal rotations and flexion is now only minimal loss and there’s no more pain with resisted abduction. We have found a significant positive effect with the exercise repeated shoulder internal rotation.
That will become the patient’s home program until the next visit. It’s about demonstrable cause and effect, not theories or guessing. It’s about being specific and not giving someone who needs one movement a program of seven things to stretch, strengthen, and retrain when it’s not needed. -- Laura
Again, it boils down to function vs structure. Most problems are things not functioning well - not structural damage. Think thyroids under or over producing hormones, hearts not pumping blood efficiently, bacterial infections in the gut.
In the musculoskeletal system it’s often nerves misfiring, joints not moving well, muscles not activating. Movement testing reveals these. Structural musculoskeletal issues, though, primarily need imaging to be visualized; they’re hard to see with the naked eye. Those who believe musculoskeletal problems are largely due to structural damage (I do not) therefore usually rely on imaging. A glaring problem with imaging, however, is that people with no complaints will have structural changes upon imaging. That those “changes” become “damage” in the presence of complaints is an unsubstantiated leap.
I use movement to test (and treat) the structure and function of people’s musculoskeletal system. In the event a relevant structural issue that will not respond to therapy is suspected, the individual is referred to the appropriate clinician. -- Laura
Given how often I see patients whose non-spinal pain is related to their spine, I make sure to investigate the spine as a possible contributor or cause. As I’ve said before, that investigation varies in time based on the case.
If I read a study on patients diagnosed with “patellofemoral pain syndrome” or “shoulder impingement” and there is no mention of clinically looking into the effect spinal movements have on the person’s complaints, I take that study with a grain of salt. I use the word “clinically” on purpose: you cannot rule in or out spinal involvement solely with an image. At least 25% of people’s shoulder and knee pain I see is actually a spine problem, addressed with moving the spine.
I also say “probably” in this post on purpose. If an orthopedic study looks at people who have traumatically fractured their tibias, that is a different ball game. Most orthopedic problems, however, aren’t obvious traumas. -- Laura
The McKenzie method (MDT) is the system that determines what the patient needs so it is inaccurate to say someone isn’t a “McKenzie patient.” Most often the assessment reveals that the patient would benefit from a movement-based protocol. But assessments can reveal patients need anti-inflammatory intervention, surgery, rest, non-musculoskeletal care, etc. A feature that’s wonderful about MDT is you can recognize when the person doesn’t need to be in your office. Compared to my career before I started using MDT, I know much sooner when movement is inappropriate. -- Laura
If you are not well-versed in ruling out the spine as the source of an extremity symptom, you are missing roughly half of the sources of patients’ problems. This issue can be mitigated if the patient has been referred from someone whom you trust has already effectively clinically cleared the spine. Often, however, people with knee pain go directly to a “knee doctor” or those with numb hands visit a “hand doctor” who, in my experience, only examine that specific body part.
A system, an algorithm, is needed to ensure success in any paradigm. In my practice, experience and pattern recognition factor in, but a structured process directs my evaluation and treatment. Most importantly, a patient’s spine is investigated before moving on to an extremity. I’ll say we need to ensure the problem is not coming from a faulty fuse box (since so often it is). How long I spend on this inquiry can be minutes, it can be days - it depends on the individual case.
There is certainly a role for these professionals, but our current utilization methods need revamping. Let’s use extremity specialists only when it’s clear-cut that that intervention would be most effective for helping patients. --Laura
If a patient has knee complaints - and I rule out the spine as the source - I assess (and usually treat) the knee with repeated movements. Usually the movement is to address the joint position itself, though sometimes the movement addresses a tendon or muscle. Here McKenzie diplomat Joel Laing demonstrates the movement: knee extension with overpressure in partial weightbearing. I used this with a patient last week in fact! There are many ways to move a knee, but this is one of the most commonly used movements. Please remember, even in the presence of arthritis, meniscus, ligament, tendon, or cartilage damage, in most cases joint pain can be rapidly fixed with repeated movements. The typical exercise prescription for home for the knee is 10 repetitions every 3-4 hours. McKenzie clinicians are trained to examine whether your problem falls into the 80% of cases which will respond to repeated movements, and to find which movement is best for you. --Laura
I recommend checking the spine first in nearly all patients, but if your symptoms are not improving (even symptoms like sinus congestion!) with whatever treatment, repeated movements are worth a try. The McKenzie method typically uses repeated movements to address patients' symptoms as movement is frequently the best medicine - and carries little to no risk as we use the least force necessary. While my role is to investigate exactly how you need to move, it's true that most therapeutic movements are those opposite our normal joint position. In this patient's case, that means neck retraction (moving the neck back). --Laura
Patient complaint: right Achilles pain preventing him from training and competing (sprinting). By taking a thorough history and mechanical exam, it is clear his pain is originating in his low back. When taking his verbal history, what made me suspect his spine - and not his actual Achilles tendon - is the tendon pain variability, his report of intermittent low back and calf "tightness," and his history of other lower extremity issues.
If a tendon itself is the problem it is very unlikely that it “warms up” and pain during a workout subsides. The more you stress a problematic tendon, the worse it usually gets. However, it is likely that a joint moves from a place causing pain to a harmless position as you move (“warm up”).
When we did the mechanical exam he had an obstruction to movement in his right low back and sciatic nerve tension on his right. When he initially did 10 right, single-leg calf raises, the Achilles burned starting with repetition #2. After repeatedly moving his spine into extension with pressure (about 30 repetitions), this test was much less painful. His homework was therefore spine extension in lying with belt overpressure. After a couple weeks of doing that (10 repetitions every 2 hours), we added spine bending to ensure the injury was fully healed. He was discharged at visit 4 with a prevention and maintenance program. -- Laura
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