If you suffer from chronic back pain, any advertisement that promises relief is likely to catch your attention, including ads for spinal decompression therapy—a popular treatment many patients swear by. Unfortunately, it hasn’t earned high marks or broad support from physicians or physical therapists, except in certain cases.
The reason for the tepid response is that most patients only benefit from spinal decompression in the short term, according to Janet Delong, DPT, a physical therapist at Indiana University Health Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Center in Bloomington. She says passive treatments such as decompression therapy create a dependence on healthcare practitioners for assistance. “There are other therapies that are much more effective in the long-term because they actively involve the patient,” Delong says.
Spinal decompression, also known as mechanical traction, has different forms. One way is to harness patients to a table on their stomachs or backs and apply static or intermittent pull to stretch the spine. Depending on the patient’s condition, the health care professional adjusts the amount of time, the degree of pull and the angle of the traction. It can also be applied with heat or ice. Inversion tables are used similarly to suspend patients from their ankles or pelvis with the trunk lower than the hips.
The center of the disc is made primarily of water and it moves as we do. As traction is applied, it decreases the pressure in the disc, theoretically moving the disc away from the nerve root. It offers no substantial change in the condition or position of the vertebrae, but Delong says traction can improve nutrition to the disc, and the negative pressure it creates may support healing.
In our next post, learn how physical therapists help patients achieve longer-lasting relief from back pain.