What is spinal decompression therapy and how can it help you?
Perhaps before we discuss spinal decompression therapy we should take a brief moment to talk about who might benefit from this treatment and why. As the name implies spinal decompression therapy is a treatment for spinal problems that are associated with pressure or compression. There are a number of different spinal ailments that are the result of compression of the nerves exiting the spine. The most common are slipped discs, spinal stenosis, sciatica and pinched nerves.
While the exact mechanisms of these various conditions are different they all ultimately involve pressure on or compression of the spinal nerve roots. There are surgical techniques of spinal decompression, but this article will focus on non-surgical methods available to decompress the spine. Many times these non-surgical techniques can reduce or eliminate the need for surgery. Several studies suggest that the techniques that we are about to be discuss may reduce the need for back surgery from 47 to 60 percent. So in theory more widespread use of non-surgical spinal decompression strategies could effectively eliminate the need for about one in every two spine surgery procedures. That is really great news for folks suffering from pinched spinal nerves regardless of the cause of the compression.
So how does it all work? The basic concept is really quite simple. A nerve exiting the spine gets compressed by a bad disc, spinal stenosis of spondylosis, a fancy name for spinal arthritis. Pressure on the nerve causes it to become inflamed and chemical changes occur in the nerve which makes it hyper-excitable. The result is pain, lots of it and also numbness and even weakness in the muscle of the lower back, hip and leg. Depending on the nature of the nerve compression and the amount of chemical changes that occur in each patient’s compressed nerve, the signs and symptoms will vary from patient-to-patient. The important thing to remember is that the first job is to decompress the nerve. Then the inflammation and chemical changes need to be addressed for the body to heal properly.
Step one: Take the pressure off the spinal nerve to stop ongoing nerve damage. There are a number of ways to take the pressure off a pinched nerve. The general term for this is called spinal decompression; in truth we should really call it spinal nerve decompression therapy. Because it is more accurate to say we decompress the spinal nerve than to state we decompress the spine. So how do we decompress the spinal nerves? The answer is straight forward. Apply traction. Spinal traction has been used to treat back pain from nerve compression for thousands of years.
The most important question is how to most efficiently apply traction to the spine to effectively decompress the spinal nerves? There are a number of ways.
You probably can remember seeing pictures of patients strung up in harnesses with pulleys and weights. This old style of traction has been dismissed as ineffective, probably because it was inefficient in truly separating the vertebrae and causing decompression of the spinal nerve roots.
Then there are some home-based methods of spinal decompression. The two most popular ones are inversion machines that turn you upside down and cause gravity to distract the spine rather than compress it and the large exercise balls that can be used to elongate the spine through exercise. Both have pros and cons and for our discussion these should be relegated to follow-up home use after a course of true medical spinal decompression therapy.
That leaves two competing professional technologies to provide spinal decompression therapy in a medical setting. One therapy is called Spinal Decompression Therapy. It consists of a traction-like table and uses computerized sensors to monitor muscle contraction. This is important because when you start to administer traction to the spine a reflex occurs in the back muscles that resists the decompressive force. This is called the muscle stretch reflex. So this monitoring of the muscle stretch reflex is important to provide effective force to decompress the spine and pinched nerves. The Spinal Decompression Equipment times the traction with the relaxation of the muscles. Without considering this reflex muscle contraction the force used to decompress the spine will only be placing traction on the spinal muscles and not truly decompressing the pinched nerve.
In fact some scientists believe that old school traction failed to produce excellent results because they could not overcome the reflex muscle contraction hat occurs when you stretch the spinal muscles. If this was the case then traditional traction devices were limited to stretching back muscles and did very little to decompress the spine nerves. Modern Spinal Decompression equipment seems to have overcome this obstacle to true spinal nerve decompression.
An alternative to Spinal Decompression Treatment Tables is a technique called Flexion-Distraction Therapy. Flexion Distraction Therapy is unique because it is one of the only forms of decompression that treats the patient while he/she is face down. This is important for a couple of reasons.
We just talked about the muscle stretch reflex in the spinal muscles that makes them contract and resist decompression of the spine. There are many more reflexes associated with muscles. Another important reflex is called the agonist-antagonist reflex. Simply put, this is a reflex that causes the back muscle to relax when the stomach muscles are shortened. This reflex may be one of the reasons why Flexion Distraction Therapy can have profound effects on pinched spinal nerves.
While the patient is face down on the table, the Flexion Distraction Table flexes slightly. This has the effect of shortening the stomach muscles and causing a reflex relaxation of the back muscles. By slightly flexing the spine before applying the traction, the Flexion Distraction Therapy abolishes or greatly reduces the muscle stretch reflex in the back muscles. So once the spine is slightly flexed, resistance to traction of the back muscles is minimized and the spinal nerves can be effectively decompressed. Another advantage of Flexion Distraction Therapy is that the flexion movement of the table mechanically opens up the canal where most spinal nerve compression occurs.
So the properties of Flexion Distraction Therapy that make is ideal for spinal decompression is that by the nature of the procedure, back muscle relaxation and resistance to distraction are eliminated and the area of maximum nerve compression is mechanically enlarged all of which adds to effectiveness of spinal nerve root decompression.
Both Spinal Decompression technology and Flexion Distraction Technology for the non-surgical decompression of spinal nerve roots can be highly effective in reducing the pain and other symptoms associated with spinal nerve root compression. They are usually administered with additional therapies which are designed to reduce nerve inflammation and restore proper nerve chemistry. Either are worth looking into before considering surgery to decompress pinched spinal nerves.
Research supports the effectiveness of both of these competing techniques for the non-surgical decompression of spinal nerve roots.