Does Spinal Decompression Therapy Work?

Written by Pam MS, NCSP | Fact checked by Psychology Dictionary staff 

Spinal decompression therapy is a relatively new procedure that attempts to mitigate for spinal compression injuries without surgery. It is a motorized form of traction, that pulls the weight off of the spine, potentially allowing bulging disks to pop back into place as the spine is straightened and the weight burden is removed. Additionally, decompression therapy offers a chance for areas that are pinched off to receive a new supply of blood, food, oxygen and white blood cells to feed and heal the area. Swollen tissues can also remove excess fluids while the procedure is being administered. All of these things can give the back what it needs to heal itself, potentially removing the need for painful and risky surgical procedures.

Who is a Candidate?
Though this is a procedure that may work for many different people, there are certain groups that medical professionals believe are most likely to gain the most from the procedure, and who they think can avoid surgery at times with spinal decompression. These groups include those with herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, neck pain, sciatica, worn spinal joints or injured spinal nerve roots.

Current Stage of Effectiveness
Spinal decompression therapy has not yet been proven to be good, bad, or consequential at all. It is still considered an experimental treatment, and as such, it is in the process of gathering enough data to be proven an effective treatment. This may make it difficult for some insurance companies to be willing to pay for it, as many don't think experimental treatments make sense for their patients. That said, the significant savings compared to back surgery may be enough for more forward thinking insurance companies to consider giving it a shot. Much of it depends on the company you're working with, the credibility of the doctor that has diagnosed you, and the cost of alternative FDA validated therapies. Known risks (which are rare) include bleeding, infection, blood clots, anesthesia allergy and nerve or tissue damage. The same risks are known for spinal surgery as well.

How it Works
This is an outpatient procedure, and usually takes 20-28 visits over a period of seven months or so. The treatment will go between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on additional treatments they may have you do prior to therapy, like heat, cold, electrical stimulation or ultrasound. These can help loosen your muscles, making the therapy more effective. During the actual decompression, you lay on a bed strapped in two places by harness. This is usually your shoulders and pelvis, though some slight modifications are available at some clinics. A computer will determine the rate of stretching that you do, and you are gently pulled in two directions, with a rest in the fully stretched point to allow some fluid exchange to occur.

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