Answers to Questions about Chiropractic:
Can a Traction Machine Like the
VAX-D Reset a Ruptured Disc?

Samuel Homola, D.C.

Question

I have a herniated L5-S1 disc (according to MRI findings). I am 39, in awesome shape (very strong core muscles from martial arts, etc.). I've always had back trouble, but for the past year it has been worse. An orthopedist told me that there is no cure and that I should stop doing the one sport that has brought me happiness.

I have soreness in my left lower back, knee pain (arthritis, says the MRI), and the three middle toes on my left foot are numb on and off. There seems to be some weakness in my left leg, and my kicks arenât as quick. Iâm wondering if I should see a neurologist.

I really do not trust chiropractors; my GP wouldn't refer me to one even if I begged him. Your info on the possible dangers of manipulation for a herniated disc was well heeded.

I am currently on Lodine, which helps a lot. I stopped the medication for three days and my pain got worse.

I'm intrigued by and wondering about the validity of "traction machines," such as the VAX-D and the Backpro CPM (continuous passive motion). In theory, they elongate the spine, relieve the pressure, and allow the disc to reset. Of course, this makes sense only if the disc is retracting on its own to begin with. What is your opinion about all of this?

Answer

I would certainly suggest that you see a neurologist. The recurring numbness in your toes and the weakness in extending your leg indicates nerve root involvement. If you are unable to walk on your heels or on your toes without the affected foot dropping to the floor, this would be a sign of nerve damage. You should be kept under observation by a neurologist who can determine when and if surgery might be needed to prevent progressive nerve damage that might result in a permanent foot drop.

If no progressive nerve damage is taking place, time will often resolve the problem as the herniated disc dehydrates and degenerates, removing the offending disc cartilage. But you should be examined periodically by your doctor.

While some traction machines might help when a disc is bulging, there is no evidence that they are beneficial in for a ruptured or herniated disc. Let's hope that no damaging nerve pressure takes place before the damaged disc cartilage is absorbed in a natural process of degeneration.

Meanwhile, be cautious in pursuing your sport. Don't do anything that causes pain.

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Dr. Homola is a second-generation chiropractor who has dedicated himself to defining the proper limits on chiropractic and to educating consumers and professionals about the field. His 1963 book Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism supported the appropriate use of spinal manipulation but renounced chiropractic dogma. His 1999 book Inside Chiropractic: A Patient's Guide provides an incisive look at chiropractic's history, benefits, and shortcomings. Now retired after 43 years of practice, he lives in Panama City, Florida.

This article was posted on February 13, 2003.