Does the McKenzie Method Work for Neck Pain?

Question: I've had neck pain for several years and have found that some exercises help me, while others make the pain worse. My friend said I should try the McKenzie Method. What is it? Can it help?
— Key West, FL

young woman at desk with neck pain Neck pain is common in adults of all ages. Photo Source:

Answer: The McKenzie Method—also known as Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy—is a comprehensive spinal technique that teaches you to safely and effectively reduce your neck pain (or other spinal pain) and improve your function.

The goal of the McKenzie Method is to assess, treat, and prevent back and neck pain, putting you in the position to control your own pain. And it can also help with some joint problems that cause shoulder, hip, and knee pain.

That's great to hear that you already do exercises that help reduce your neck pain, but the McKenzie Method would definitely be worth trying to relieve—and prevent—your neck pain. The method looks for a specific key exercise you can do to control your pain, which can be more effective than other types of exercise. This is called directional preference of movement, and it may hold the key to reducing your back pain.

The best results have been demonstrated with patients who work with therapists (typically physical therapists or chiropractors) who have completed a structured training program and passed a standardized certification examination by the McKenzie Institute.

I'll walk you through what happens in a typical physical therapy or chiropractic session that incorporates the McKenzie Method:

  • At the beginning of your appointment, the physical therapist or chiropractor will perform an in-depth assessment. You'll talk about your health history, neck pain, and other symptoms.
  • Then the therapist will guide you through some specific, structured exercises. This will help determine which movements or positions cause neck pain as well as which movements feel more comfortable and reduce your symptoms.
  • During the first appointment, many patients show signs of centralization. This is when pain that originates in the spine and is felt elsewhere (eg, in the arm or hand) progressively moves toward the spine as a result of specific positions or movements. This has been shown to be a very favorable sign.
  • Based on what he or she sees in the assessment, the therapist will design a customized exercise program to teach you how to reduce your neck pain and other symptoms on your own.
  • It's important to note that everyone's plan is different: Your plan will be completely individualized to treat your neck pain.

After your initial appointment, you'll do the exercises on your own, but you may meet with your therapist over the next 3 or 4 weeks to monitor your progress. During these appointments, he or she may change the exercises as your pain changes and/or range of motion increases.

By doing these exercises consistently, you can reduce your neck pain and prevent it from getting worse.

Most of the exercises only take a few minutes to do, so the McKenzie Method can easily become a part of your daily routine. Your McKenzie Method-trained therapist will help you design a simple exercise plan that fits into your everyday life. He or she will also teach you ways to prevent aggravating your neck pain by avoiding certain positions or other daily activities you might not have thought about before.

The McKenzie Method can give you the tools that may help reduce or prevent your neck pain and other symptoms. Usually, only a handful of sessions are needed to begin to see some benefits. Results are often rapid, especially since you'll be managing your neck pain between visits to your McKenzie Method-trained therapist.