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No doubt by now you’ve read the ads “New Hope for Disc Pain & Sciatica,” “Miracle Disc Treatment”, “How the Space Age Cracked the Back Pain Code” and the myriad others in the papers. You’ve seen the TV ads or heard spots on the radio all purporting to have the answer to the leading cause of disability in the U.S. – Back pain. The ads speak of back pain relief using space age technology without drugs or surgery for even the worst herniated discs. But is Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression (NSSD) or Intervertbral Disc Distraction (IDD therapy) really a “space age” miracle or just hype?

Cure for Serious Back Pain is Elusive:
The claims made by spinal decompression physicians are incredible and seem too good to be true. It is well known that for serious back pain — back pain caused by intervertebral disc herniations or “slipped discs”, degenerative disc disease, stenosis, etc – most popular treatments are not effective.

Traditional medicine’s approach of medications, periods of rest, home exercises, steroid injections and eventual surgery fail more times than not. A Scandinavian study published in the December 2001 journal “Spine”, found that a dismal 1 in 6 patients undergoing spinal fusion had an “excellent” result 2 years after surgery. Overall, back surgery is clinically reported to be at best 50% effective and involves tremendous risk. Second or repeat surgeries are common and lead many into long-term pain management centers.

More conservative approaches such as physical therapy, yoga, chiropractic and acupuncture all claim to deal with back pain. Unfortunately, while they are much less risky than drugs or surgery and have been proven to help with common low back problems from strains, poor posture, etc, there are no long-term studies that point to any of them as being successful for curing or relieving pain from more serious conditions such as disc herniations or stenosis.

Dehydration and Breakdown of the Disc is at the Root of Serious Back Pain:
The difficulty seems to be in the nature of the problem itself. The disc is a fibrocartilagenous structure that provides space between the vertebrae or spinal bones to allow nerves to exit freely and communicate with the rest of the body. The discs also act as mini “shock absorbers” dissipating the energy and stress from standing, walking and bending against gravity. The disc must rely on water and nutrients it gets from the body at night while resting to replenish itself.

Injuries to the spine can cause the vertebrae or bones to get stuck not allowing the disc to open up and get replenished at night. Injuries to the disc itself can cause it to leak out much needed water. The result is dehydration and eventual breakdown of the disc, which causes it to bulge outward towards the nerves. If the condition is severe enough, the outer disc layers are actually torn or split open to allow the internal disc material or jelly to protrude outward and contact sensitive nerves.

Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression proponents claim to restore water to the disc and reduce disc herniations and/or bulges through the use of a specially made decompression machine, but do these machines really work?

Spinal decompression therapy has been tested and shown favorable results. A clinical research project was conducted to determine the response of over 200 back pain subjects suffering with disc bulging, herniation and/or degeneration to non-surgical spinal decompression.

But is Spinal Decompression a “Cure All”?
As for a “cure all” as some of the ads hyping the process lead health care consumers to believe, the answer is an emphatic “no.” Many conditions cannot be treated by spinal decompression and it is not intended for minor back pain that responds quickly to therapy or chiropractic care. But for the millions of people suffering from serious back pain and leg pain associated with disc herniation, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, facet syndrome, sciatica, spinal stenosis, chronic low back pain or failed back surgery, spinal disc decompression therapy has been medically proven to be 86% effective.

The Bottom Line: Costs
Costs of spinal decompression programs vary as do all medical procedures from location to location. An average cost for Suffolk County and New York regions for spinal decompression range from $4,000 to $7,000. Some clinics charge an extra $1,000 to $3,000 or more for extensive post spinal decompression rehabiltiation, but there is no medical evidence this improves the patient’s outcome versus home exercises.

Important points to remember are that claims of “Medicare accepted” or “Work Comp Approved” or other claims of insurance acceptance are deceptive advertising claims. At the present time there are no insurance codes for spinal decompression. That means insurance will not pay specifically for spinal decompression.

No doubt by now you’ve read the ads “New Hope for Disc Pain & Sciatica,” “Miracle Disc Treatment”, “How the Space Age Cracked the Back Pain Code” and the myriad others in the papers. You’ve seen the TV ads or heard spots on the radio all purporting to have the answer to the leading cause of disability in the U.S. – Back pain. The ads speak of back pain relief using space age technology without drugs or surgery for even the worst herniated discs. But is Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression (NSSD) or Intervertbral Disc Distraction (IDD therapy) really a “space age” miracle or just hype?

Cure for Serious Back Pain is Elusive:
The claims made by spinal decompression physicians are incredible and seem too good to be true. It is well known that for serious back pain — back pain caused by intervertebral disc herniations or “slipped discs”, degenerative disc disease, stenosis, etc – most popular treatments are not effective.

Traditional medicine’s approach of medications, periods of rest, home exercises, steroid injections and eventual surgery fail more times than not. A Scandinavian study published in the December 2001 journal “Spine”, found that a dismal 1 in 6 patients undergoing spinal fusion had an “excellent” result 2 years after surgery. Overall, back surgery is clinically reported to be at best 50% effective and involves tremendous risk. Second or repeat surgeries are common and lead many into long-term pain management centers.

More conservative approaches such as physical therapy, yoga, chiropractic and acupuncture all claim to deal with back pain. Unfortunately, while they are much less risky than drugs or surgery and have been proven to help with common low back problems from strains, poor posture, etc, there are no long-term studies that point to any of them as being successful for curing or relieving pain from more serious conditions such as disc herniations or stenosis.

Dehydration and Breakdown of the Disc is at the Root of Serious Back Pain:
The difficulty seems to be in the nature of the problem itself. The disc is a fibrocartilagenous structure that provides space between the vertebrae or spinal bones to allow nerves to exit freely and communicate with the rest of the body. The discs also act as mini “shock absorbers” dissipating the energy and stress from standing, walking and bending against gravity. The disc must rely on water and nutrients it gets from the body at night while resting to replenish itself.

Injuries to the spine can cause the vertebrae or bones to get stuck not allowing the disc to open up and get replenished at night. Injuries to the disc itself can cause it to leak out much needed water. The result is dehydration and eventual breakdown of the disc, which causes it to bulge outward towards the nerves. If the condition is severe enough, the outer disc layers are actually torn or split open to allow the internal disc material or jelly to protrude outward and contact sensitive nerves.

Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression proponents claim to restore water to the disc and reduce disc herniations and/or bulges through the use of a specially made decompression machine, but do these machines really work?

Spinal decompression therapy has been tested and shown favorable results. A clinical research project was conducted to determine the response of over 200 back pain subjects suffering with disc bulging, herniation and/or degeneration to non-surgical spinal decompression. 

But is Spinal Decompression a “Cure All”?
As for a “cure all” as some of the ads hyping the process lead health care consumers to believe, the answer is an emphatic “no.” Many conditions cannot be treated by spinal decompression and it is not intended for minor back pain that responds quickly to therapy or chiropractic care. But for the millions of people suffering from serious back pain and leg pain associated with disc herniation, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, facet syndrome, sciatica, spinal stenosis, chronic low back pain or failed back surgery, spinal disc decompression therapy has been medically proven to be 86% effective.

The Bottom Line: Costs
Costs of spinal decompression programs vary as do all medical procedures from location to location. An average cost for Suffolk County and New York regions for spinal decompression range from $4,000 to $7,000. Some clinics charge an extra $1,000 to $3,000 or more for extensive post spinal decompression rehabiltiation, but there is no medical evidence this improves the patient’s outcome versus home exercises.

Important points to remember are that claims of “Medicare accepted” or “Work Comp Approved” or other claims of insurance acceptance are deceptive advertising claims. At the present time there are no insurance codes for spinal decompression. That means insurance will not pay specifically for spinal decompression.

But for a serious problem like a disc herniation, consumers should make their final decision based on:

  • Which doctor is best qualified to handle their problem
  • What is their educational background?
  • How many years of experience do they have?
  • How many patients with similar conditions to yours have they successfully treated? 
  • Are they a specialist dedicated to disc disorders and spinal decompression or are they merely jumping on a lucrative band wagon putting a traction device into an empty room in their clinic?
  • How’s your rapport with the doctor and staff?
  • Are they accessible and easy to ask questions?

You are more likely to be satisfied with the best possible service and the most qualified specialist rather than take a chance on a lesser clinic that may not have the requisite experience to handle your unique disc problem and therefore charge under the market rate for the service.  Just like everything else in life, you get what you pay for.

Conclusion
In summary, claims of “New Hope for Disc Pain” or “Space Age Miracle Sciatica Treatment” may very well be true. With the advances in technology derived from computer medical technology Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression treatment provided by a qualified spinal decompression specialist is well worth a try for back pain and leg pain sufferers who haven’t been able to find relief anywhere else and wish to avoid surgery.

References:
Jensen M, Brant-Zawadzki M, Obuchowski N, et al. Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Lumbar Spine in People Without Back Pain. N Engl J Med 1994; 331: 69-116.

  Vallfors B. Acute, Subacute and Chronic Low Back Pain: Clinical Symptoms, Absenteeism and Working Environment. Scan J Rehab Med Suppl 1985; 11: 1-98.

  Project Briefs: Back Pain Patient Outcomes Assessment Team (BOAT). In MEDTEP Update, Vol. 1 Issue 1, Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, Rockville, MD, Summer 1994.

  Thomas A. Gionis, MD, JD, MBA, MHA, FICS, FRCS, Eric Groteke, DC, CCIC, Spinal Decompression, Orthopedic Technology Review Nov/Dec 2003, Vol. 5, No. 6