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Spinal Decompression Therapy

*Not to be confused with surgical spinal decompression that removes the bulging material from herniated discs.

Spinal Decompression Therapy is also called Vertebral Axial Decompression or VAX-D. It is a form of mechanical lumbar traction. These tables/systems are approved by the FDA as traction devices. The FDA classifies Vertebral Axial Decompression tables as powered traction equipment.

Conditions treated by spinal decompression therapy / vertebral axial decompression / VAX-D include chronic lower back pain, especially sciatica, caused by herniated lumbar discs, degenerative disc disease, etc. VAX-D is not for acute back pain, as most acute back pain resolves with or without treatment within a couple of months.

A spinal decompression therapy system consists of a split table that is programmed by a computer to provide cycling distractive forces along the axis of the lumbar spine. The intensity of intermittent force is increased gradually to help prevent muscles from contracting in reaction to being stretched. With proper positioning, traction can also be applied to an isolated spinal disc.

While regular spinal traction can lower the pressure within a vertebral disc, spinal decompression therapy is claimed to actually create a negative pressure (a vacuum) within a disc, which allows disc material from a herniated disc to be pulled back into the disc. There is no proof, however, that spinal decompression therapy (or 'regular' traction) has any permanent effect on a herniated disc.

It is believed that reducing the pressure in the lumbar discs may also promote healing of the disc as fluids and nutrients enter the disc through diffusion.

Spinal decompression therapy appears to be relatively safe when used on properly selected patients and performed by a qualified clinician. Before receiving this treatment, a patient should get properly diagnosed by a qualified physician. Injury could occur if a person has a medical condition that contraindicates decompression therapy. An x-ray should be taken to rule out vertebral fractures, osteoporosis, spondylolisthesis, etc.

Typically, patients receive 20 Decompression treatments over a month (5 days per week for 4 weeks). Decompression therapy is expensive (because the systems are so expensive), costing much more than traditional forms of spinal traction.

Claims made by some providers of this therapy appear to be unsubstantiated. This is not an indication that spinal decompression therapy does not provide lower back pain relief for some patients. A California chiropractic clinic was fined $25,000 for false advertising after being unable to substantiate advertising it distributed regarding the DRX9000 (advertising and marketing materials were provided by the manufacturer of the DRX9000 - Axiom Worldwide, Inc.). The Defendant claims they did not realize the claims were unsubstantiated.

The unsubstantiated claims in advertising and marketing materials disseminated by Defendant included:

  • Reliable, scientific studies or fact-based evidence demonstrating 86% success rate for non-surgical spinal decompression with patients suffering from herniated discs or degenerative joint disease.
  • Reliable, scientific studies or fact-based evidence demonstrating 90% reduction in disc herniation in 71.4% of patients.
  • Reliable, scientific studies or fact-based evidence regarding therapeutic effect of space travel on astronauts.
  • Reliable, scientific studies or fact-based evidence documenting that therapeutic effect of the DRX9000 in the "most severe cases when "NOTHING else has worked.
  • Reliable, scientific studies or fact-based evidence regarding the representation that "pre-and post-treatment MRIs have shown greater than 50% reduction in the size and extent of herniations after four weeks of treatments with the DRX9000.

Most private health insurance plans consider spinal decompression therapy / vertebral axial decompression to be investigational and not medically necessary and do not provide coverage. Medicare considers vertebral axial decompression not proven effective under any name and does not provide coverage. Some insurance companies will pay for regular traction, which costs much less than vertebral axial decompression, leaving the patient to pay the balance. Many people simply cannot afford this expensive treatment.

Like any treatment, what works for one patient may not work for another. Many both satisfied and unsatisfied customers have posted their comments on blogs and forums on the Internet. While some people have found great relief with spinal decompression therapy and have even avoided surgery, others are bitter over having spent four or five thousand dollars without obtaining any pain relief.

Always get properly diagnosed by and discuss treatment options with a qualified physician.