Spinal Decompression Therapy
What is spinal decompression?
Spinal decompression describes different types of treatment that can offer back pain relief by taking pressure off the neural elements of your spine.
Why do people have spinal decompression therapy?
Your spine (backbone) provides support for your body. It consists of bones called vertebrae, with ligaments and spinal disks that keep it flexible. Your spinal column provides a nerve pathway that runs down the middle of these bones, ligaments and disks.
Spine injuries or degeneration (wear and tear) to your spine can cause pain. You might feel pain from compression in your spine that puts pressure on your spinal cord or nerves. Spinal decompression seeks to relieve the pressure to ease the pain.
What conditions can spinal decompression treat?
Some common reasons you might seek spinal decompression treatment include:
- Bulging disks, when a cushion between vertebrae bulges out.
- Degenerative disks, when the cushion between vertebrae starts wearing out.
- Herniated disks, when part of a disk pushes on a nerve.
- Pinched nerves, when a nerve gets pinched (compressed), causing numbness, pain or tingling.
- Sciatica, damage to your sciatic nerve.
- Spinal stenosis, narrowing of spaces in your spine due to bone spurs or bulging or herniated disks.
What types of spinal decompression therapies are there?
Some types of back pain don’t need a healthcare provider to treat them. Acute (sudden) back pain usually gets better on its own. Pain relievers or muscle relaxants offer relief while you heal. Using hot and cold packs can help, too.
For chronic back pain or long-lasting pain, there are other treatment options. Most people start with non-invasive therapies. If home care doesn’t work, your healthcare provider may recommend surgical treatment.
What are alternative treatments for spinal decompression?
Complementary or alternative medicine can relieve pain without surgery. Options you might consider:
- Acupuncture: A healthcare provider puts small acupuncture needles through your skin at different points on your body to relieve pain.
- Chiropractic care: Spinal adjustments using chiropractic care realign your bones to ease your pain.
- Physical therapy: You work with a therapist to learn stretches, better ways to lift things and exercises to relieve pain.
- Traction: Your healthcare provider uses pulleys and weights and a traction table to stretch your spine. Your healthcare provider may also use an inversion table. Inversion therapy is a type of traction that uses gravity. You lie on a table that tilts to angle your body, relieving pressure on your spine.
- Nerve stimulation: Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses small electrical charges from a device. The charges help muscles relax and nerves stop hurting.
What are spinal decompression surgeries?
Healthcare providers may recommend surgery if other therapies don’t help. While some spinal decompression surgeries use minimally invasive techniques, not all do. Ask your healthcare provider if a minimally invasive surgery will work for you.
Your surgical options for spinal compression may include:
- Corpectomy: A surgeon removes a vertebra or disk. To stabilize your spine, your surgeon may do a spinal fusion, which fuses two bones together.
- Diskectomy: Your surgeon removes part of a disk to take pressure off your nerve.
- Foraminotomy or foraminectomy: Your surgeon expands the openings for your nerve roots by removing bone or other tissue. Opening the spaces for your nerves to exit your spinal cord relieves pain.
- Laminotomy or laminectomy: Your surgeon removes a piece or all of the bony arches on your spinal canal. Removing these pieces of bone opens your spinal canal and relieves pressure.
- Osteophyte removal: Osteophytes, or bone spurs, are outgrowths of bone that happen as people age. Your surgeon can remove them to relieve pressure.
After your surgery, you may stay in the hospital for up to five days. A full recovery can take months, depending on the type of surgery you had. Physical therapy can help you regain strength, movement and nerve sensation.
How do you choose a spinal decompression procedure?
Deciding which procedure would work best for you depends on many factors. Your healthcare provider will make a recommendation based on your overall health history and injury severity.
In general, healthcare providers prefer a “stepped” approach. They start with less invasive and more cost-effective procedures to see how the injury responds. If those don’t work, the next level of care may include surgery.
What tests determine the severity of the injury?
Your healthcare provider may conduct several tests to better understand your injury. These tests may include:
- Bone scans: A bone scan is an imaging test that detects fractures, cancer or infections in your bones. Your healthcare provider orders a bone scan to find the source of your back pain.
- Diskography: Your healthcare provider injects contrast (a dye that shows up on X-rays and other scans) into your back. Then a computed tomography (CT) scan takes pictures. Diskography can show any damage to your disk.
- Electrical tests: Your healthcare provider orders electromyography to check electrical activity in your nerves and muscles. An evoked potential study tests how fast electrical signals go through your nerve to your brain. Nerve conduction studies (NCS) measure how well your nerves work.
- Diagnostic imaging: Your healthcare provider uses diagnostic imaging to take “pictures” inside of your body. These images can indicate the cause of your pain. Specific imaging may include CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and X-rays.
Risks / Benefits
What are the risks of spinal decompression?
Medications can cause allergic reactions, and alternative therapies may not work. Surgical options can cause infection, bleeding, blood clots or nerve or tissue damage. Discuss your options and concerns with your healthcare provider.
What are the benefits of spinal decompression?
The right treatment can fix problems that are causing back pain. Using a stepped approach allows your healthcare provider to find an option best suited for your case, with the least risk possible. Treatment can get you back to work, school or play.
Recovery and Outlook
What kind of success does spinal decompression have?
Surgical cases can have a high success rate at relieving pain. Surgery may not fix all degenerative issues. You may experience symptoms again.
In clinical trials for spinal stenosis, people who had surgery showed more improvement than those who received nonsurgical treatments.
Talk to your healthcare provider about your individual needs and outlook.
When to Call the Doctor
You should see a healthcare provider if your back pain doesn’t get better with pain relievers, rest, heat and cold packs. If your back pain treatment doesn’t seem to be helping, talk to your healthcare provider. You may need to try a different spinal decompression treatment.
Should I get spinal decompression therapy if I’m pregnant?
Most women suffer from back pain at some point during pregnancy. While you’re pregnant, you should speak to your healthcare provider about your pain levels.
Research has shown some alternative therapies, such as chiropractic care, can relieve pain during pregnancy. But not all treatments may be safe or work for you. Your healthcare provider will help you find one that works for you.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
No one should have to live with back pain. If your back hurts, talk to your healthcare provider. Many treatment options can relieve symptoms. Some medicines and at-home remedies might help. And some people find relief from alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and chiropractic care. If those don’t do the trick, you might have surgical options that can ease your pain and get you back to an active lifestyle.
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