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Complete Guide to Spinal Decompression Therapy

spinal decompression therapy guide

Back related issues are the most common reason people seek medical treatment. About three in four adults will be affected by back pain related issues within their lifetime. “Back pain” describes pain that emanates from the spine which can range anywhere from your upper to lower back.

Spinal decompression therapy is a popular and effective solution for some back pains. Let’s take a minute to learn about the different back pains you may experience and how spinal decompression therapy can help.

What Is Spinal Decompression?

Spinal decompression therapy has two main forms – surgical and nonsurgical. As always, this is a decision to make with your doctor. Spinal surgery is a major outpatient operation, whereas nonsurgical spinal decompression uses a variety of devices to temporarily decompress the lower spine, providing relief.

Here’s a rundown of each method of spinal decompression.

Surgical Spinal Decompression

There are two main types of spinal surgery that people get for decompression –

Laminectomy: Lumbar spinal stenosis is the most common reason for this surgery. During a laminectomy a surgeon will remove parts of your bone or ligaments to relieve pressure on your spinal nerves. It can make your spine less stable which can result in needing to get a spinal fusion surgery done as well. It’s common to see both these surgeries done together.

Spinal Fusion: During a spinal fusion your bones will be joined together. This will limit the range of motion, and how far your nerves will stretch, but not limit your physical activity. This surgery is common for people suffering from chronic pain that is related to aging. 

This surgery often requires plates to be inserted into the spine to help stabalize the spine until everything heals properly.

X-ray Lumbar spine show post operation Laminectomy with plate screw

The aim of surgery is to give a drop in back pain and increase range of movement. After the first few weeks of post surgical treatments, patients post surgery should be able to manage their symptoms using pain medications and be more productive in their daily life.

Non Surgical Decompression Therapy

Non Surgical methods for spinal decompression can either be done at home, or in a medical office. Spinal decompression manages back pain by gently stretching your spine. Spinal traction applies a gentle force to your spine and separates the bones and vertebrae in your spine.

This allows bulging and herniated discs enough space to ‘snap’ back into place. The separation makes it easier to promote movement of nutrients through spinal structures so they can heal faster. Spinal decompression takes pressure off of your nerves and other spinal structures as well. 

Decompression therapy stretches the spine using a decompression table or similar equipment. Patients experience a relief in back pain, neck pain, or pain in their limbs. 

Conditions treatable with spinal decompression therapy include:

  • Degenerative disk disease
  • Herniated discs
  • Bulging discs
  • Sciatica
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Post-surgery pain
  • Worn out spinal joints

From here we will go more in depth about nonsurgical spinal decompression therapy.

Medical Grade Equipment For Spinal Decompression

Even at the doctor’s office spinal decompression therapy is non-invasive — You’re fully clothed. You will lie back facing up or down on a computerized table. A harness will be wrapped around your pelvis, and another one around your trunk. Your doctor will use the computer to customize the treatment to your exact needs.

Spinal rehabilitation exercise on young woman. Spinal Decompression Therapy

Your treatment sessions can last from 30 minutes to 1 hour. Treatments are usually done for 20-30 sessions over a 5 to 7 week span. 

Before or after spinal decompression therapy you may under other treatments such as:

  • Electrical stimulation: uses an electric current to make specific muscles contract
  • Ultrasound: Promotes healing by generating heat through sound waves
  • Heat or ice therapy

Spinal Decompression Therapy At Home

Spinal decompression can also be performed from home. Albeit commonly used in modern medicine, use of spinal decompression therapy dates back all the way to 400 B.C. Although, the equipment and methods are far more controlled now.

The most common way to achieve spinal decompression at home is through inversion therapy.

What Is Inversion Therapy?

Inversion therapy is a form of decompression therapy that is also known as spinal traction. The theory for spinal traction is that hanging upside down reverses the pressure of gravity on your spinal nerves, disks and bones. Inversion therapy is able to reset spinal conditions by temporarily creating more space between vertebrae that are squished together.

Inversion tables: Inversion tables are swiveling beds that allow a person to hang upside down with their back secured to a bed. The table is supposed to mimic a standing position but upside down. This allows the spine, and especially the lower back, to stretch out aided by gravity.

Gravity (Inversion) boots: Inversion boots aren’t really boots at all, they’re straps that firmly secure around the ankles. The devices have a bar on them which hooks onto a pull up bar, and then you hang from them with the boots helping you stay in a balanced position. Inversion boots are quite different from tables because they don’t offer any support or gradual application, it’s all or nothing. 

Decompression belts: Using a spinal decompression belt is another spinal decompression method. Decompression belts or braces are able to reduce back pain by reducing pressure on your lumbar region (lower back). The belt compresses your abdominal region. Body mass is centred in the abdomen which reduces excess pressure on your back because of body mass.

Is Spinal Decompression Treatment Painful?

Spinal decompression is a relatively gentle and should not be painful. Many people see therapy as a time to mentally unwind, and physically relax as well. However, a small percentage of people may feel slight discomfort during therapy. 

Any issues with spinal contraction are usually traced back to a practical issue:

  • Excessive pressure
  • Not enough pressure
  • Improper positioning (for decompression/inversion table)
  • Treatment sessions are too long.
  • Muscle spasms following treatment

These issues may be overcome with open communication with the help of a medical professional. People using therapy at home therapy equipment can benefit from taking caution and having a partner to supervise them for the first few sessions. 

Is Spinal Decompression Safe To Do At Home?

Spinal decompression methods are safe just as long as you follow the guidelines before using them. You should consult a medical professional when planning on using any type of spinal decompression equipment in case they think you’re not a suitable candidate.

People suffering from any of these conditions below should consult their medical provider before using a decompression belt or other home decompression devices:

  • Spinal and pelvic fractures
  • Lumbar spine damage
  • Osteoporosis
  • Respiratory disease
  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Acute lumbar injuries
  • Children or pregnant women

Inversion Therapy Session Length

When starting with inversion therapy, you can start with sessions that are as small as 1-2 minutes long. You can try working your way up to 3-5 minutes, or for as long as it takes your muscles to relax. You can use multiple sessions per day in order to get the maximum results. Other people use inversion therapy as a temporary stress reliever.  

Decompression Belt Session Length

During your first week of using decompression belts you should limit sessions to no more than 20-30 minutes and 3 to 4 times per day. As you feel better as the weeks go on you can use them for much longer periods. It’s not uncommon for people to wear them at work if applicable.

Types of Back Pain

There are many variations of back pain someone can feel. “Back pain” is generally separated into two groups. The first is acute back pain and is more common in younger people who experience back pain. 50% of acute back pain episodes are resolved within two weeks, while 80% of them will be resolved in six weeks; However, Acute episodes can be recurring.

The second type is chronic back pain which is defined as lasting for more than twelve weeks. The pain can range from mild to severe, and can often be described as shooting, jolting, mild, aching, burning or deep.

Certain types of back pain can travel into other areas of your body such as your thighs and calves. It is often referred to as radicular pain, especially when it travels below the knee. This scenario is called a lumbar radiculopathy, occurring in conditions such as sciatica. Fortunately not every type of back pain affects the legs.

Pain Medication

Back pain medications are prescribed for patients post surgery or to simply treat general back pain. These medications are provided to relieve pain in the short term. Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School D. Shmerling says,  “They don’t address the source of your pain, and thus won’t keep problems from recurring,”.

There are several different categories for back pain medication: Opioids, muscle relaxers, antidepressants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The best dosage and medicine depends on your pain levels, and your body’s reaction to the medication.

Certain pain medications can be addictive, and others can cause physical dependence. In both cases withdrawal symptoms may be experienced when people suddenly stop using the substance. Addiction to pain medication is the result of a behavioural and psychological response that can develop in certain patients.

As you consistently take pain medication your starting dose will lose its effectiveness — Thus building up a tolerance. People taking a category of medications called opioids can develop a rapid increase in tolerance, and gain a physical dependence. People struggling with tolerance and physical dependence issues still won’t be classified as addicts.

Early withdrawal symptoms that may begin after 24 hours may include:

  • Constant yawning
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Aching muscles
  • Insomnia
  • Shaking and seizures

Late withdrawal symptoms that may begin after 24 hours may include:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Digestive problems
  • Goosebumps
  • Depression

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