Getting it straight

New treatment provides relief from lower back pain

A newly opened clinic in Craig is chipping away at the back pain epidemic that doctors say affects 21 million Americans.

Allan German, who opened the Lordex Spine Institute in Craig, says 97 percent of the sufferers can be helped without going under the knife.

The Lordex clinic opened its doors in October, and it has treated about 26 patients. They range in age from 23 to 83 years old. Some of them injured their backs working in coal mines, operating heavy equipment or manning oil rigs. Some are victims of car wrecks and other accidents.

For most of them, Lordex is their last resort.

According to German, they've tried pain medications, physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, massage, acupuncture and even surgery.

"Most of these people have tried everything you can think of," German said. "They have an unstable back and it's causing chronic low back pain."

The success rate for a back surgery is between 25 and 45 percent, German said. He claims Lordex can dramatically change the quality of life for 85 to 95 percent of the people who try it.

Those who've tried it seem to agree.

"When I came down here in early November, I was almost thinking I was going to be in a wheelchair," said Bill Rippy, who was sitting on a patented Lordex exercise machine Thursday, doing what appeared to be abdominal crunches.

"I was probably looking at surgery," Rippy said. "I was ready to try anything."

Rippy was severely injured four years ago when a platform on an oil rig collapsed on him.

After more than a month of Lordex treatments, his pain is getting better, his back is stronger, he's no longer considering surgery, and he calls Lordex a "godsend."

Negative pressure

Lordex uses two machines to restore the function of the spine.

The first machine is called the Lordex Decompression Unit (LDU). Essentially, it is a table connected to a tower of machinery.

Patrick Martin, a doctor of chiropractic medicine who manages the Lordex Spine Institute for German, straps the patient into a harness that fits around the midsection. The patient then lies on the table while Martin adjusts the position of the body, and hooks the harness to the tower.

Martin can raise or lower the table to target a specific vertebra. Then, the doctor dials in the amount of force the machine will exert. He shuts off the lights, hands the patient a pair of headphones -- along with an emergency "kill switch" -- and leaves the room.

The LDU pulls on the harness, gently decompressing the spine.

The result, Martin said, is that a vacuum is created in the space around the disc. Blood and nutrients flow into the disc in a process known as "imbition."

Discs don't have their own blood supply, German said. Instead, they are fed by movement. They absorb moisture and nutrients from the surrounding tissue. Pulling the vertebrae apart creates a suction that speeds up the process.

When a person stands, his or her back is under pressure. The pressure of standing is about 3.8 pounds per square inch (psi). When sitting, the pressure increases to about 7.6 psi. During a Lordex treatment, the LDU relieves the back by producing a negative pressure of about 3.8 psi.

It takes pressure off of pinched nerves and ailing joints.

'Chasing symptoms'

Dianna Ponikvar received chiropractic treatment off and on for ten years. It provided relief from a bad hip that periodically pops out of place and causes her pain.

But in December, she herniated two discs in her spine. She knew she was badly hurt when she had to see the chiropractor twice in one day because she couldn't even walk.

She works in the safety department at an underground coal mine, so she knows how long it can take to recover from a herniated disc injury.

She said she routinely sees co-workers incapacitated for a month or more.

"I went to Lordex and I was back to work after two weeks," Ponikvar said.

Lordex achieves its impressive results by relieving pressure on the little structures that give the spine its flexibility -- the discs.

The discs lie between the vertebrae in the spine.

One of Lordex' mottos is that the spine is only as strong as the muscles that support it. As people age and enter more sedentary lifestyles, the muscles supporting the spine become weaker. It's a condition knows as "disuse atrophy."

Once the spine's support structure is weakened, it's only a matter of time until the instability will result in an injury.

The average low back pain sufferer begins to complain of pain at about age 32. By then, much of the damage has been done, German said. When people begin to complain of pain, it usually means that the back has been in a state of dysfunction for some time. Eventually, the discomfort exceeds a person's pain threshold, and one seeks medical assistance.

Unfortunately, German said, the most common treatments focus on pain management, not a restoration of function.

"All these people are still chasing symptoms," German said.

German prefers to "dig a little deeper" and treat the cause, not the symptoms.

In the Lordex view of spinal health, function is paramount.

"We try to restore their function so they can be a healthy 40-year-old or a health 50-year-old. We restore a patient's quality of life," German said.

It's not surprising that other treatments would focus on pain. German admits that chronic pain makes people irritable and "drives people crazy."

But he questions what is the real value of always being an arm's length away from a bottle of pills. It's probably better than nothing, but now that Lordex has arrived, German doesn't see an excuse for not using it.

A back surgery might cost $50,000. Lordex is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it's covered by medical insurance, and it costs about $3,400.

German heard about Lordex from his brother, who practices chiropractic medicine in Bismarck, N.D.

German's brother was seeing "amazing results" among his clientele.

Al German and his wife, Jessica, who own Craig Chiropractic Clinic, bought the Lordex equipment in October.

German was busy with his own chiropractic practice, so he hired Patrick Martin to run the Lordex clinic.

German refers his own patients to the clinic, and he's hoping general practitioners, chiropractors and other healthcare professionals will send their "low back pain" clients to Lordex.

Lordex won't "steal" patients from other doctors, German said. It will treat clients who can't be helped by any other means.

"We want to treat your patients. We can fix their low back and send them right back to you," German said. "(Lordex is) a specialty clinic -- all we want is low back people."

Building back muscles

Richard Wagoner suffers from a pinched nerve that causes a twitch in his left leg. The twitch is usually accompanied by pain that shoots around his leg and up his back. It's caused by a bulging disc that pinches a nerve.

"It was getting so bad I had trouble operating a standard transmission," Wagoner said. "I wasn't sure (Lordex) would be able to do any good, but I was willing to gamble. I had to try something."

Wagoner said he previously shied away from chiropractors because his arthritis is so bad he was afraid any procedure would be too painful.

He calls the Lordex treatment a "gentle manipulation."

Wagoner said Lordex worked for him.

"There's very little pain and a lot less twitch," Wagoner said. "So there have been results from it."

After patients finish the 30-minute decompression therapy, they move to another room in the Lordex clinic where they strengthen the muscles that support the spine.

The muscles are very difficult to isolate. But isolating and building those muscles is what sets Lordex apart from other non-surgical decompression therapies, German said.

The exercise machine, called RX1 Strength Restoration Machine, includes several features that isolate a specific group of back muscles.

Two pads push against the shins, while a pad behind the rear holds the torso in place. A belt is placed around the legs to further isolate the back muscles. The patient then moves forward and backward slowly as weight is applied to the apparatus. The exercise combats the "disuse atrophy" that weakened the back and made it vulnerable to injury in the first place, German said.

Bill Rippy said he wishes he could take the machine home with him. After he gets off the decompression machine, he said he feels a bit stiff. After a few repetitions on the RX1, he feels looser and stronger.

Roberta Harper was working out on the RX1 on Thursday. She started Lordex in hopes of avoiding back surgery. Harper was hit by a truck 20 years ago and has suffered from the injuries ever since. She underwent surgery on many parts of her body. When her back flared up recently, a doctor offered to operate.

"I told him I'd rather strengthen it first and see if that helps," Harper said. "I didn't want surgery on my back. I came in to get it strengthened so I don't have to do that."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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