Physiotherapist who saved multitudes from back and neck pain dies in KapitiBy Alan Tristram
One of the world’s top authorities on back and neck pain, New Zealand physiotherapist Robin McKenzie has died at his home in Raumati on the Kapiti Coast.
McKenzie (82), who rose from humble circumstances in Masterton to achieve international fame, wrote two best-selling books: ‘Treat Your Own Back’ and ‘Treat Your Own Neck,’ as well as a textbook ‘The Lumbar Spine.
He taught and lectured around the world; and he also set up the McKenzie Institute International to further the revolutionary treatment methods he initiated.
One of the great paradoxes of his life was that for many years he was comparatively unknown to back-pain sufferers in his own country, while overseas hospitals and research institutes queued up to invite him to lecture and teach his methods.
Practiced in Wellington
After graduating from the School of Physiotherapy at Otago University, Robin McKenzie practiced for many years at Kelvin Chambers in Wellington. During this time he treated many MP’s and the then PM, Keith Holyoake, as well as many members of the National Orchestra who suffered from occupational overuse syndrome.
And it was there in the early 1960’s that he experienced his ‘Eureka’ moment after leaving a patient for some time in an extension posture, something like the yoga cobra pose.
Contrary to received medical wisdom, the patient reported that this posture had lessened his pain — and so McKenzie set off on a medical odyssey that took him around the world to study spinal treatments.
Then he evolved the revolutionary McKenzie method — cheap and effective — which educated the patient to cure his, or her, own back and neck pain. It was essentially a ‘hands off’ approach for the therapist, another revolutionary aspect to his method.
But at first, New Zealand practitioners were slow to recognise the efficacy of his methods.
So in the 1970’s McKenzie went to the United States, where his ideas were adopted with great enthusiasm. He revealed later that from this new beginning in America, he never looked back.
He was hired by the Kaiser group of hospitals and helped many thousands of American workers to overcome their debilitating back problems.
Honours quickly followed, and McKenzie was invited to the UK, to many European countries and to Japan and China.
Overseas training courses
The work became so arduous he set up training courses to educate other physiotherapists and also established the McKenzie Institute to carry out further research. He invented the unique McKenzie Lumbar Roll and McKenzie Neck Roll to help patients prevent a recurrence of pain.
But although invited to set up base in the United States, he always remained true to his home country. He lived at Silverstream in the Hutt Valley, and then for many years at a farmlet in North Waikanae before moving to a purpose built ‘Round House,’ on the seafront at Raumati.
In the 1990’s he was awarded an OBE and later became a Companion of NZ Order of Merit. He received many overseas honours.
He is survived by his wife Joy, daughter Jan and sons David , Alley and Andrew.
His funeral will be held at Old St Paul’s in Wellington on Monday, May 20, at 11am.
The basis of the McKenzie approach
With the McKenzie approach, physical therapy and exercise used to extend the spine can help ‘centralize’ the patient’s pain by moving it away from the extremities (leg or arm) to the back. Back pain is usually better tolerated than leg pain or arm pain, and the theory of the approach is that centralizing the pain allows the source of the pain to be treated rather than the symptoms.
A central tenet of the McKenzie Method is that self-healing and self-treatment are important for the patient’s pain relief and rehabilitation. No passive methods — such as heat, cold, ultrasound, medicine or needles — are used in the treatment.
The long-term goal of the McKenzie Method is to teach patients suffering from neck pain and/or back pain how to treat themselves and manage their own pain for life, using exercise and other strategies. Other goals include:
- Reduce pain quickly
- Return to normal functioning in daily activities
- Minimize the risk of recurring pain (avoid painful postures and movements)
- Minimize the number of return visits to the spine specialist
And these methods have proved remarkably effective for patients around the world.