Spinal decompression is a back pain treatment performed by a chiropractor that can help lengthen your spine and relieve your pain. This is what you can expect with this pain management approach.
What is spinal decompression?
Non-surgical spinal decompression is a non-invasive, chiropractic treatment for acute and chronic spinal pain. This technique uses specialized tables that digitally control the force (and angle of that force) to apply a carefully calibrated and precise adjustment to your spine.
The way spinal decompression works is twofold.
First, the force of the adjustment gradually lengthens and decompresses your spine. This lengthening and decompression creates a vacuum that relieves the pressure on the intervertebral discs while also easing any muscle spasms.
Next, an osmotic gradient is created. This occurs when liquid (in this case, fluid in the discs) moves to fill an area, restoring equilibrium and an even balance of fluid in the discs. This also helps to bring nutrients into the disc to promote healing. The overall effect restores normal spinal movement and function.
History of this technique
Allan Dyer, MD, PhD, the former Deputy Minister of Health in Ontario, Canada, is credited with developing non-surgical spinal decompression.
While spinal decompression can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, Dr. Dyer pioneered modern computerized spinal decompression in 1991 after introducing the VAX-D (vertebral axial decompression) table. This table came in two parts. The upper part is fixed in place, and the lower part is mobile and moves the patient’s lower body back and forth. A harness secures the patient during treatment.
Although effective, the VAX-D was very expensive and treated only the lower back. Newer versions of tables and machines continue to be developed. Each table works in essentially the same way to decompress and lengthen the spine, with adjustments for better use.
What conditions can spinal decompression help with?
It is essential to first obtain an accurate diagnosis before beginning spinal decompression treatment. There are several structures of the spine that may be responsible for causing your pain, and many conditions have similar symptoms. Some conditions can actually worsen with spinal decompression, so a diagnosis and comprehensive treatment plan beforehand is crucial.
Spinal decompression may help people suffering from the following conditions:
- Bulging or herniated discs
- Spinal stenosis
- Degenerative disc disease
- Facet syndrome
- Failed back surgery (without hardware)
You may not be eligible for this treatment if you:
- Have surgical hardware
- Have metastatic cancer
- Are suffering from severe osteoporosis
- Have had a recent vertebral fracture
- Are pregnant
- Have unstable spondylolisthesis
An overview of spinal decompression
After receiving a diagnosis and locating the affected area, the spinal decompression machine is set up to focus tension in the lumbar or cervical region (neck). Your doctor will then determine a specific cycle for treatment and position you on the table.
This technique begins with a slow increase in tension, creating a negative pressure (space) within the disc. Then, after a holding period, the machine will slowly release the tension. This is critical to help you relax and not tense your muscles (or send the muscles into spasm). The treatment alternates between these periods of decompression and relaxation, together achieving a therapeutic effect.
Spinal decompression helps to relieve pressure on the intervertebral discs. Under normal circumstances, gravity provides a certain amount of pressure on the discs of the spine. Whether standing, sitting, or lying down, this pressure is present and normal in the spine. As we age, or with injury, this pressure begins to increase. Increased pressure makes it difficult for the discs to continue to do the job of cushioning and separating the vertebrae.
Imagine the intervertebral discs like a sponge. When you wring out a sponge, and then release it, there is new space for clean water to enter. If there is no release and the sponge stays compressed, there can be no new water.
In the spine, fluid and nutrients, including the jelly-like substance (nucleus pulposas) of the discs, cannot move normally when the discs compress. Because the discs, like other cartilage in your body, do not have a direct blood supply, they rely on movement to receive their nourishment by a process called imbibition. This vacuum effect draws moisture, nutrients, and oxygen back into the discs.
Overall, spinal decompression relieves the pressure on the disc(s) to promote healing.
Side effects and risks
Using spinal decompression can help reduce pressure on the discs of your lumbar spine and stretch tight ligaments and muscles. However, there are some challenges to this treatment.
Many conditions treated by this technique occur due to time or injury. As we age, we generally lose muscular strength in our backs and abdomen. This muscle supports the spine and helps it to stay long and strong. Spinal decompression can bring temporary length into the spine, but patients must also complete physical therapy and other strengthening treatments to maintain that length and prevent further injury.
In terms of injury, this approach may relieve pain after a few treatments, but the lack of pain does not indicate a full recovery. Spinal decompression treatment frequency and duration depends on the patient’s condition and consists of about 12 to 25 sessions over a four to six week period. As with conditions due to age and gravity, it is crucial that patients participate in the entire treatment plan, including any exercises and dietary changes prescribed by their doctor.
There is no recovery period after treatment. Many patients report feeling relaxed, with less pain immediately after the procedure.
If you feel increased pain or soreness during or after treatment, talk to your doctor.
Could spinal decompression help me?
A 2015 review of research suggests that spinal decompression therapy, in combination with physical therapy, relieves pain and increases mobility in patients with lumbar disc herniation after four weeks.
Earlier studies showed a measurable increase in disc height after non-surgical spinal decompression, an increase that was significantly correlated with less back pain. For many who want to avoid surgery or medication, this technique offers another non-invasive option to manage pain.