Core stabilization compared to McKenzie method treatment


  1. “The condition has been identified as the leading contributor to ‘years of life lived with disability’ in the world including the United States.”


Big surprise, we are talking about back pain again. I see a majority of my schedule as back pain for the previous 8 years. There is no loss of people with back pain. This is an epidemic. The only reason it is not treated in such high regard has cancer, AIDS, Zika, and others is because it’s not deadly and does not cause major deformities. Because back pain is so common, it’s treated with little urgency such as the common cold.

  1. “In Australia, LBP is estimating to reduce gross domestic product by $3.2 billion annually and is the leading cause of early medical retirement for older working people.”

Think about that! You go to school and you load up on student loan debt. After school, you get a job paying much less than you think you’re worth. Then you get sidelined by low back pain and are forced to retire well before you’re ready. It doesn’t have to be this way! Not all low back pain is the same, and when you figure out what type of back pain you have it becomes a lot easier to prevent recurrent issues of back pain.

  1. “Directional preference classification is characterized by a reduction in distal pain and/or observation of the centralization phenomenon with the application of repeated or sustained end-range loading strategies to the spine that remain better after assessment. Centralization is defined as a progressive change in pain from a more distal location to a more proximal location that remains better after applying repeated or sustained end-range movement to the spine… hallmark characteristic of the McKenzie derangement classification.”

There is no doubt that a directional preference correlates with great outcomes. There is no doubt that centralization correlates with great outcomes. The thing that needs to happen is that therapists need to be trained to see these during the initial evaluation. A majority of patients demonstrate a classification utilizing the McKenzie method, based on the research of Stephen May. The derangement classification is the largest classification syndrome based off of Stephen May’s previous research, but there are other syndromes. Typically, it’s the derangement syndrome that the research attempts to study. I see very few articles on the other two syndromes in the mainstream research journals.

  1. “There is some evidence that improvement in size and recruitment of the muscles of the spine, including the transverse abdominis, is associated with improved function in the short-term when patients with low back pain receive motor control exercises compared to general exercise or spinal manipulation. However, increases in transvere abdominis and lumbar multifidus thickness using real time ultrasound have also been observed immediately and one week following spinal manipulation in people with low back pain, suggesting that increases in transverse abdominal recruitment may not be specific to motor control exercises.”

OK, a muscles ability to contract is not dependent on its size. A muscle’s ability to contract is based off of that muscle’s ability to receive the nervous system input from the central nervous system. Should there be something that allows for better neural activity, we expect to see an increase in muscle contraction and possibly an increase in muscle size. This is important because we may not have to train a muscle in the traditional sense in order to making muscle contract better.

  1. “The McKenzie method was prescribed according to the principles described by McKenzie and May… Delivered by two therapists who had obtained the level of credentialed therapist from the McKenzie Institute International… Mechanical therapy, including patient and therapist generated forces utilizing repeated or sustained and range loading strategies in loaded or unloaded postures, according to the patient’s directional preference..that guided by symptom response. The aim was to reduce, centralize, and abolish peripheral symptoms… Once symptoms centralize, any movement loss was then treated with repeated and range movements in the direction of movement loss… Received a copy of treat your own back to supplement treatment and self-management.”

The patients included in the study were all patients of the derangement syndrome. When assessing a patient utilizing the McKenzie method, we are attempting to classify the patient into one of three syndromes. This has a high reliability when performed by therapists that are highly trained. The hallmarks of the derangement syndrome is centralization, this occurs when symptoms move from a segment far away from the spine towards the spine. The symptoms in the furthest position from the spine have to decrease or abolish. This is accompanied by the directional preference. A directional preference is as stated, when we move you in a specific direction…your body prefers that. Your body tells us it prefers that direction by centralizing symptoms, improving range of motion, improve strength, or improving other neurological tests such as reflexes and dural tension testing. One can also have a directional preference in the absence of centralization, as extremities also demonstrate directional preferences.

  1. “Initially, promotion of independent contraction of the deep stabilizing muscles, such as the TrA and multifidus, was facilitated by pelvic floor contraction…Objectively, skill mastery of TrA recruitment was measured by palpation and visual assessment for a reduction of overactivity of the superficial trunk muscles…practice daily…attend the physical therapy clinic twice a week for the first 4 weeks and once per week for the remaining 4 weeks”

This is beat into students during PT school…understanding the impact of performing TrA contractions on low back pain. The problem with this theory is that the research is scant on cause and effect. We know that patients with low back pain have smaller multifidi and TrA muscles, but we can’t say “chicken or the egg” yet. We also can’t say if the back pain caused the smaller muscle or if the muscle was smaller and then it caused back pain. More research needs to take place. The topic of centralization and directional preference was briefly touched upon while I was in PT school and the topic of TrA was hammered into us. Now it appears that centralization and directional preference are being taught more in PT schools based on the students that I get as a clinical instructor.

  1. “Participants allocated to the McKenzie method group attended an average of 5.4 +- 2.5 treatment sessions over an average of 38.6+-18.8 treatment days, while participants in the motor control group attended an average of 6.5+-2.7 treatment sessions over 47.3+-22.7 treatment days”

This doesn’t look like a huge difference, but this indicates that those being treated by a MDT credentialed therapist, one less session was required. Think about this again. Each session is performed at a cost to insurance companies (read Medicare) of about $100. At this point, each patient would save $100 to insurance companies when seen by a credentialed MDT therapist. This, over the long term, has dramatic effects on the total cost of spending in the US.

  1. “…no statistically significant effect for treatment group for muscle thickness…at an 8-week follow-up in a population of people reporting chronic LBP classified with a directional preference. Global perceived improvement was the only secondary outcome that demonstrated a significant between-group difference, which favored the McKenzie method”

Let me say this slowly. Using a directional preference based exercise provides the same result as actually training a specific muscle in terms of muscle size! This is huge! We all are taught that to make a muscle bigger (hypertrophy) requires up to 6 weeks of performing an exercise in order to specifically improve a muscles size. This indicates that a muscle’s size can increase without any direct exercises to improve a muscle’s size.

The final piece of this is that those treated with MDT based principles actually felt better than those receiving motor control exercises (read this as core stabilization).

You walk into any clinic in America (aside from those that are doing MDT) and you will see bridges, bird-dogs, pull your belly into your spine exercises, and of course the traditional hot pack and e-stim. These types of treatments may not be the best. Ask your therapist how your back pain is classified. If they can’t give you a straight, honest, and well reasoned answer…FIND A NEW THERAPIST!

  1. I am bolding this, because it is important to read straight from the article. There will be no explanation needed.

Results from our study suggest that in patients with a directional preference, receiving exercises matched to their directional preference is likely to produce a greater sense of improvement than receiving motor control exercises.”

Excerpts taken from:

Halliday MH, Pappas E, Hancock MJ, et al. A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing the McKenzie Method to Motor Control Exercises in People with Chronic Low Back Pain and a Directional Preference. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther.2016;46(7):514-522.

Categories Physical therapy, PTs, Written BlogsTags

1 thought on “Core stabilization compared to McKenzie method treatment

  1. Great post! There is nothing that drives me crazy more than hewing other therapists tell patients how not keeping their TA contracted during all movements is causing their pain. That is absolute nonsense and likely causes more harm than good for many people. Movement should be fluid and mindless and an individual shouldn’t have to walk around constantly thinking about whether they are keeping their stomach tight. Talk about alternating natural movement… A close second on my list of things that drive me crazy is therapists that tell all patients with radicular pain that it is coming from their “tight piriformis.” The majority of the time this is absurd. If the piriformis was the problem then there wouldn’t be tenderness to palpation in the lumbar spine and their wouldn’t be reproduced symptoms with lumbar movements. I always begin lumbar Evals with a repeated movement assessment but I have to admit that I am not as dead set on using repeated movements as I was as a new grad. If I get quick changes and can easily find a directional preference then I will pursue it but I also get great results with mobilization and manipulation off the bat with some patients. It really just depends on the specific situation for me but you will never hear me harping on TA or piriformis as a source of low back pain.

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