Problems of the intervertebral discs are a common cause of serious low back pain. The discs are especially likely to be involved when the pain shoots down the leg or is accompanied by numbness or muscle weakness.
Many patients can be helped with hands-on chiropractic methods. But when disc problems are bad enough, something extra is needed. That’s why I also utilize flexion-distraction treatment.
Flexion-distraction is effective for herniated, bulging, or degenerated discs. It opens up the space between the vertebrae to relieve pressure on pinched nerves and allow the disc to rebuild.
But when I first began using flexion-distraction, I had a problem
On occasion a patient’s low back feels more vulnerable and unstable after a treatment. They need a stabilizing hand even to stand up without buckling. They feel that a slightly wrong movement would trigger even worse pain.
The reaction usually only lasts a few minutes. An hour at the most. But fifteen years ago, when I was first using this treatment protocol, I didn’t know how to interpret the response.
Naturally, I worried. I worried that I was doing the right thing. Maybe my diagnosis was incorrect. Maybe I set the machine to pull too strongly. Or I worried that maybe that particular person just wasn’t suited to flexion-distraction treatment.
Fortunately, instead of being stuck in an endless cycle of worry, I was able to adapt some of the principles of athletic training to form a more complete picture of the changes in the intervertebral disc as it degenerates, gets injured, and then heals.
One thing powerlifters know a lot about
There’s a physiological basis for the exercise strategies used to maximize the build-up of muscle tissue: train intensely and overload the muscle to actually break down some of the fibers. In the short run, your muscle will be weaker. And you’ll feel sore.
But the overload experience will stimulate the body to rebuild the muscle to be bulkier and stronger than before.
If instead you perform merely moderate exercise you might see a modest strength gain. But the effect occurs through an entirely different mechanism. With moderate exercise, the brain learns to connect better to your muscles, so you can marshal more of your existing power.
But you haven’t gained any muscle bulk or increased your potential to generate power. You haven’t anatomically reinforced your muscle fibers. To actually stimulate the body to build muscle, you have to work hard enough to cause fiber breakdown.
Flexion-distraction treatment works on the intervertebral disc in nearly the same way. The decompression session overloads the connective tissue fibers of the disc. Some of them get broken down. You feel weaker and more sore – for a few minutes.
The payoff is that your body rebuilds to become even stronger.
Flexion-distraction does more than get you out of pain. The purpose of the treatment is to stimulate regeneration of the disc. Taking anti-inflammatory drugs doesn’t do it. Epidural injections or spinal surgery don’t do it. Only non-surgical lumbar decompression achieves this effect.
Patients who have experienced an 18-20 visit program typically continue to enjoy good spinal health for years into the future, without a negative whisper from their discs.
Now I know better
I still worry sometimes.
But now I worry if my patients aren’t getting a strong enough force to break down some of their disc fibers. I warn them that their low back might feel a little dicey temporarily after a treatment. And I can nurse them through that immediate reaction by applying ice to the low back and making sure they wear a lumbar support belt.
I make sure they receive all the potential benefits of lumbar decompression treatment:
• relieving pain
• taking pressure off the nerves
• rebuilding damaged discs to allow for many years free of low back troubles