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VAX-D: Treating Back Pain Without Surgery

Experts discuss the effectiveness of a back pain treatment that offers an alternative to surgery.

WebMD Feature

Before a sudden onset of excruciating back pain left him barely able to stand, retired internist Ernie Reiner, MD, was busy volunteering at a health clinic in Tampa, Fla., and improving his golf and tennis game. After several tests showed a herniated disk and lumbar stenosis (narrowing of the spine in the lower back), he reluctantly scheduled back surgery. Having been through the slow and painful recovery from back surgery once before, he dreaded another round.

Searching for alternatives, Reiner discovered vertebral axial decompression therapy (VAX-D), a relatively new, noninvasive form of traction-like therapy for low back pain. After 28 treatments lasting 45 minutes each, he considered himself recovered. "I canceled my surgery date and never rescheduled," Reiner says. Six years later, the 85-year-old continues to swing a golf club and a tennis racket vigorously.

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Understanding Back Pain -- Diagnosis and Treatment

Before a doctor can begin treating back pain, he or she may do tests to diagnose what is causing your problem. Unless you are totally immobilized from a back injury, your doctor probably will test your range of motion and nerve function and touch your body to locate the area of discomfort. Blood and urine tests may be done to be sure the pain is not caused by an infection or other systemic problem. X-rays are useful in pinpointing broken bones or other skeletal defects. To analyze soft-tissue damage...

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How VAX-D Works

In principle, VAX-D works by alternately stretching and relaxing the lower spine, thereby relieving pressure on structures in the back (the "cushion" disks and vertebral bones)structures in the back (the "cushion" disks and vertebral bones) that cause low back pain.

During a VAX-D treatment session, the patient lies face down on a computerized "split" table, a pelvic harness around the hips. The patient's arms extend forward, and his hands grasp two patient-operated handgrips. As treatment begins, the table literally separates in two, creating a stretch in the patient's lower back. If at any point in the session the patient experiences discomfort, releasing the handgrips immediately halts the treatment. A single session typically lasts 45 minutes.

Allan E. Dyer, MD, PhD, who developed VAX-D, explains how the treatment "fixes" herniated disks, a frequent cause of lower back pain: "Your bones are separated by a cushion. That cushion is always under positive pressure, even at rest. VAX-D lowers that pressure to negative levels by creating a partial vacuum that can retract the disk. Even a large, protruding disk can be retracted where it's supposed to be," he says. Dyer recommends that patients undergo 20 treatment sessions for optimal results.

VAX-D Medical Technologies, manufacturer of VAX-D, recommends the treatment for people suffering from herniated or degenerated disks resulting in low back pain and/or sciatica. But it's not for everyone, including those with spine tumors, osteoporosis, infection, cancer, severe and unstable spondylosis (spinal arthritis), and many other conditions. "Noncandidates can be ruled out by X-rays," Dyer says.

The Issue of Safety

Is VAX-D safe? Apparently, that depends on whom you ask, and under what circumstances the treatment is performed.

While the manufacturer touts VAX-D as safe, literature on VAX-D from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California lists the following risks: development of sharp, burning, or radiating pain during treatment; stress to the shoulder and rotator cuff muscles; and overstretching of the soft tissues of the back.

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