What is Spinal Decompression Therapy?

Spinal decompression therapy, also known as non-surgical spinal decompression, is a practice that utilizes spinal decompression tables to relieve pain by creating a scenario in which bulging or herniated disc tissue is able to move back into place and heal, alleviating the pain this condition causes.

Spinal decompression therapy aims to help patients who suffer from debilitating pain due to bulging, degenerating, or herniated discs. It can also be used for the pain management and treatment of many causes of sciatica, injured or diseased spinal nerve roots, and worn spinal joints.

The therapy itself works to stretch the spine, using a spinal decompression table or other device, in order to create negative pressure and space within the disc to allow disc fluid to move back into place. This creates an environment in which the disc can receive more nutrients and therefore heal itself more quickly and effectively. The ultimate goal of spinal decompression therapy is to relieve the patient’s chronic back, arm, neck, and/or leg pain, and to heal the source of said pain.

Spinal decompression therapy is also referred to as non-surgical decompression therapy, since it is often used as a safe, affordable, and extremely effective alternative to spinal surgery. The distinction between surgical and non-surgical spinal decompression is an important one, as surgical spinal procedures are often considered a last option, while spinal decompression therapy is a safe treatment at any stage of back pain.

What is a Spinal Decompression Table?

A spinal decompression table is the main tool used in non-surgical spinal decompression therapy.

Patients are strapped to the table using a harness, with other props such as pillows used to keep the patient comfortable and the spine in the correct position for decompression. Once the patient is in place, the table program is enacted and the two parts of the table begin to pull apart from one another. The poundage of the pull depends on the type of decompression as well as the physicality of the patient and can range anywhere from just 5 pounds for a cervical decompression protocol to 100 pounds or more for lumbar decompression on a larger patient.

The difference between spinal decompression tables and other methods of decompression like inversion is the technology involved. The best spinal decompression tables include sensors that indicate whether a patient’s muscles are resisting the stretch being applied by the table. As the muscles resist, the table reduces the poundage of the pull until the muscles relax, then begins to pull again. By taking resistance into account, a decompression table is able to more effectively relieve pressure in the spine and ultimately provide relief.

Spinal decompression tables use computerized technology to create negative intradiscal pressure in the spine. A decompression table has two parts which move independently of one another. During setup, a spinal decompression technician chooses a decompression program that is best suited to the patient’s needs. The right program for an individual will depend on that person’s diagnosis as well as how they have responded to previous treatments.

As the decompression table stretches the spine, negative pressure is created within the spinal discs, which can result in the retraction or repositioning of the disc material, leading to pain relief. In addition, the lower pressure within the disc can cause an influx of healing nutrients to the disc, to promote further relief even when the patient is not on the table.

Spinal Decompression Protocol

The correct spinal decompression protocol for an individual will depend on the symptoms he or she is experiencing. Typically, spinal decompression patients can expect to go through at least 12 sessions on the decompression table, though depending on the patient’s diagnosis and response to the treatment, more sessions may be required. In addition, follow-up treatments may be prescribed as needed to manage pain.

A patient’s initial visit should determine whether he or she would be a good candidate for decompression therapy. An initial analysis should include a review of the patient’s history, including any available imaging such as x-rays and/or MRI results. If the patient is a good candidate, the doctor can put together a recommended decompression protocol designed for that specific patient and diagnosis.

During the session, the patient is strapped into the table using a pelvic harness. For lumbar decompression, the lower portion of the body will move to gently stretch and relax the spine based on computerized algorithms designed to maximize the stretch and minimize the body’s resistance to that stretch. For decompression of cervical herniated discs, the upper portion of the body will move.

Candidates for Spinal Decompression Therapy

Anyone suffering from back pain related to bulging or herniated discs may be a candidate for decompression therapy, but only a doctor of chiropractic or other healthcare practitioner specializing in the musculoskeletal system and trained as a decompression technician can make this determination upon assessing a patient
There are some contraindications for this type of therapy, including:

  • Pregnancy
  • Metastasized cancer
  • Spinal fusion
  • Broken vertebrae
  • Patients with artificial discs or other spinal implant
  • Osteoporosis
  • Spinal tumor

It is critical that patients are fully examined and a medical and health history taken prior to beginning treatment with a decompression table.

Spinal Decompression Therapy Results

As with any medical treatment, results for spinal decompression therapy will vary depending on the patient, the doctor, and the protocol used. Patients do not tend to feel a tremendous amount of relief after the first treatment. Rather, after several spinal decompression sessions, relief should be apparent. In some cases, patients may need to complete their entire treatment protocol before they feel complete relief from their symptoms.