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.
When you've got back pain, one of the best questions you can ask is, "Why is it happening?" That can be the first step to helping the problem.
Common causes for back pain include:
Muscle and ligament injuries. These are the most common causes of back pain. Shoveling snow or helping a friend move her couch can sometimes overstretch the muscles or ligaments. You can wind up with strains or sprains. Most of these injuries heal in a few days to weeks.
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.