April 2, 2001 -- Eric Taylor suffered from back pain for almost
30 years. He tried physical therapy, pain relievers, anti-inflammatory
medicines, and surgery, but nothing worked. His doctor told him he could have
steel rods placed in his spine or put up with the pain for the rest of his
Taylor sought an alternative. A friend told him about a new
procedure called vertebral axial decompression (VAX-D) that might relieve pain
without surgery. Taylor thought, why not?
When heart specialist John M. Kennedy, M.D., of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, stands at the scrub sink before an operation, he breathes deeply with seven-count exhales, visualizing how he wants the procedure to go. "Athletes use these techniques to perform under pressure, but we can all call on them in our regular lives," Dr. Kennedy says. It starts with knowing what kind of breathing works best for the challenge you're facing. Here's what the latest research shows.
"As long as it was nonsurgical and noninvasive, I was open
to it," says Taylor, a 54-year-old attorney in St. Louis. "I was
Nearly 70% of all people will suffer from low-back pain at some
point in their lives, according to the CDC. It is the most common work-related
injury, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports. There
is little, however, that can be done. Bed rest is the most prescribed remedy,
followed by exercise, muscle relaxants, pain medication, physical therapy,
chiropractic intervention, and surgery. These and other methods often fail to
provide long-term relief. But researchers say there is new hope: The VAX-D
Approved by the FDA in 1996, the device was designed by Allan
E. Dyer, MD, PhD, a former Canadian deputy health minister who helped develop
the heart defibrillator. Treatment using the table is said to relieve lower
back pain by applying tension to the spinal column to decompress the
A study published in April 1998 in The Journal of
Neurological Research found that VAX-D is effective in relieving pain in
71% of cases. The majority of the 778 patients -- cases reviewed from 22
centers across the country -- reported a reduction in pain to a level of 0 or 1
on a 0 to 5 scale (with 5 being the highest level of pain). About 1% of
patients reported an increase in pain, while 7% experienced no change. About 4%
of the patients had had previous lumbar disc surgery. The researchers suggest
that postsurgical patients who still have persistent pain should try VAX-D
before considering further surgery.
"This table has been shown to have a significant benefit
for patients," says William Naguszewski, MD, co-author of the nonrandomized
study (meaning patients were not randomly assigned to other treatments for
purposes of comparison), conducted in conjunction with researchers from the
University of Illinois at Chicago and the Coosa Medical Group in Rome, Ga.
"When the patient completes the treatment, they are back on their feet and
walking and working the rest of the day."
The table's use, however, is controversial, and insurers
generally do not cover it. "Since there are really no clinical, randomized
trials on this, there is really no way of gauging whether it has any advantage
over standardized, conventional treatment," says Matthew Schiffgens,
spokesman for Kaiser Permanente.