Decompression Therapy for spine pain: What is it?

I’ll take a moment now to discuss decompression therapy. I get asked about this type of treatment almost on a daily basis. It seems every time you turn on the television or open the Sunday paper, you see an advertisement for decompression that will “cure” your back pain. Degenerative Disc Disease is a chronic condition, and nearly everyone will have radiologic evidence of it by age 60. So, will it “cure” you? No. Can it help relieve symptoms? Absolutely. However, it’s hardly a new concept. Descriptions of this treatment date to Hippocrates (460-370 BCE), who reported joint manipulation and use of traction.

Spinal decompression is a type of traction that works by gently stretching the spine. This can temporarily take pressure off the disks and spinal nerve roots that control your arms and legs. I include traction and decompression in my physical therapy prescriptions on a daily basis. I use it in conjunction with a comprehensive physical therapy approach that includes ergonomic education and spinal stabilization exercises.

Some studies have concluded that the benefits of decompression can be seen more in the relief of radicular symptoms (sciatica, arm/leg pain) than in the relief of axial pain (back/neck). However, more research is needed to establish the effectiveness of non-surgical spinal decompression with comparisons made to other non-surgical conservative care such as: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), physical therapy alone, rest, and steroid injections.

by Nathan S. Walters, MD
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