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Getting Rid of That Aching Back

Avoiding the Knife

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Others, too, call for further proof. "Seventy percent of people with backache get better no matter what you do," says Kenneth Smith Jr., MD, director of neurosurgery at Saint Louis University. "A 70% success rate would not be at all surprising, or all that wonderful."

Smith says VAX-D is similar to traction, but is a "newer, fancier machine that costs a lot more." He considers the therapy investigational, but he says it could help some people with whom other treatments have failed.

Aetna U.S. Healthcare agrees that the Naguszewski study results appear promising but says controlled clinical trials are needed to validate the table's effectiveness. The insurer takes the same position as the federal Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA). "There is insufficient scientific data to support the benefits of this technique," HCFA states in its Medicare coverage manual.

Most patients in the study had suffered through 40 months of back pain and had tried a variety of conventional remedies before VAX-D, says Naguszewski, a neurologist who practices in Rome, Ga. People have been slow to accept the treatment, he says, simply because it's new.

"There is a negative bias regarding the introduction of a new therapeutic modality in general in this country," says Naguszewski, who has treated more than 300 patients with VAX-D since 1996. "Oftentimes this is valid, but a lot of patients are not fully informed of the potential benefits of VAX-D are not familiar with the treatment, and surgeons have a surgical bias."

Candidates for VAX-D include those with herniated discs, degenerated discs, and sciatica, among others. More than 1,000 patients are treated with VAX-D therapy each month, according to the VAX-D Network, a group that promotes the treatment, which is available in 26 states.

Treatment usually consists of 20 daily sessions that last about 30 minutes each. Patients lie fully dressed on the table on their bellies with a pelvic harness strapped around their hips. Tension is applied through the harness as the table, which is divided into two sections, moves apart. The therapy is administered through a computerized system that applies tension followed by periods of rest. Handgrips held with elbows straight allow the patient to release the tension at any point.

"This gives the patient a lot of peace of mind because if they have any concerns, simply letting go stops the forces of traction," Naguszewski says.

Each VAX-D session costs about $150. After therapy has been completed, Naguszewski still recommends lifting no more than 50 pounds and avoiding repetitive bending, stooping, or crawling for several weeks.

Taylor says he started to feel some relief after about 40 sessions and six weeks of therapy. The numbness in his foot and thigh has disappeared. He doesn't water ski anymore, which started his back pain in the first place, and still receives treatments once a week. But he does swim, walk, ride his Harley, and can work 70-hour weeks.

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