Medically reviewed by Dr. Brian Paris, D.C on Jan. 20, 2019.
Every day, whether you’re standing or sitting, the force of gravity is pulling down on your spine, compressing the discs in your back, taxing your ligaments, and putting pressure on your nerves.
Spinal compression is a leading cause of back pain. Fortunately, the solution is remarkably simple.
You can reverse spinal compression with spinal decompression therapy right in the comfort of your own home.
In this article, I’ll show you five simple at-home spinal decompression exercises that will get you feeling better in no time.
- Benefits of spinal decompression
- Research supporting spinal decompression
- Spinal decompression exercises
- How to do spinal decompression with Back Ease
First, I want to tell you a little bit about spinal decompression and why it works so well for back pain relief.
What is spinal decompression therapy?
The goal of spinal decompression therapy is to counteract the natural forces of gravity.
When you decompress your spine you increase the space between your vertebrae, relaxing the pressure on your discs, ligaments and nerve roots.
Increasing intra-vertebral space means reducing pressure on the nerve roots, which means less back pain and less likelihood of nerve root damage.
Other benefits include:
- Relaxing muscles and increasing blood flow
- Helping to realign your spine when used in the long term
- Improved blood circulation, flexibility and mobility
- Better posture – which is key to healing and preventing more back problems in the future
- Eases low back pain and upper back pain from a variety of causes, including sciatica, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis and more
One of the most popular methods for spinal decompression is inversion therapy with the use of an inversion table, which essentially allows you to hang upside-down (or nearly upside down) and uses your own body weight to stretch your spine.
And for some people, this method is great.
Just look at the research:
A study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that inverted positioning for short periods significantly increased spinal length and reduced EMG activity (indicating the amount of muscle pain in participants) by 35% – in as little as just 10 seconds after becoming inverted.[i]
A study of 175 people who were experiencing back pain bad enough that they were unable to work found that after just 8 inversion treatments, nearly 89% were able to return to their jobs full-time. Improvements in a variety of conditions, including spondylolisthesis, herniated or bulging discs, lumbar osteoarthritis with sciatica and others, were reported.[ii]
A 1985 study on the effects of gravity-facilitated traction (inversion) found the therapy produces significant intravertebral separation in lumbar spine. Researchers concluded: “If increases in intervertebral dimensions play a role in the relief of low back syndrome, then gravity-facilitated traction may be an effective modality in the treatment of this condition.”[iii]
Preliminary research from New Castle University found that patients who were told they needed sciatic operations who performed inversion therapy were 70.5% less likely to require back surgery.[iv]
If you are fit and limber, you can try inversion therapy at home simply by hanging upside down from a pull-up bar.
That’s not what I recommend, though.
Most of us that are over a “certain age” prefer a more “comfortable” method of inversion therapy.
Inversion chairs and inversion tables are a safer, gentler option.
You do NOT need to be in a completely inverted position to benefit from inversion therapy, and we recommend a table or chair that allows you to control your degree of inversion.
We’ve tested a lot of inversion devices here at HBI, and we strongly recommend the Seated InLine Inversion System. (Just click here to learn more about it, as well as my suggestions for getting started.
Inversion therapy really works.
But it’s not for everyone.
Some people are not comfortable when in an extreme inverted position. In rare cases, it can in some cases lead to, or exacerbate, joint pain.
Below, I’ll teach you how to decompress your spine at home with safe alternatives that also work well for back pain.
Spinal decompression exercises to try at home
1. Standing spinal decompression
This technique originated in ancient China. It stretches the spine, releases tension and frees the nerves of encumbrances.
It straightens spinal subluxation, relieves compression of the nerves and loosens the paraspinal muscles.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with a 1-inch bend in your knees
- Put your arms overhead, so that they are aligned with your ears
- Tilt your pelvis forward, slightly, and keep your spine straight
- With one long exhale, lower your arms so that each vertebra rolls one at a time.
- At the bottom, enjoy the spinal stretch and take a breath.
- On the way up, keep your arms by your ears and maintain the same form as when you lowered.
- Relax at the top with your hands above your head and breath for a few.
Repeat this process nine times
2. Knees to chest on back
This spinal decompression exercise will lengthen your spine on the floor. It also allows you to massage your back using the floor by rocking back and forth while in the position.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on your back on the floor. I recommend a carpeted area or the use of a yoga mat so you don’t irritate your spine.
- Bring your knees to your chest and wrap your arms around your knees.
Tuck your chin as close as you can to your knees.
- Hold for 10-15 seconds. If you can, gently rock back and forth.
3. Cat Pose/Cow Pose
The cat and cow poses are simple yoga poses that stretch your spine. You’ll alternate between the two.
Here’s how to do them:
- Get on you hands and knees.For the cat pose, arch your spine up towards the ceiling and squeeze in your abdomen, drawing your hips and shoulders towards the floor.
- Tilt your chin down towards your chest.
- The cow pose is just the opposite: Arch your spine down while lifting your hips and shoulders up. Lift your chin towards the ceiling.
- Do a series of 15-20, holding each for about 10 seconds.
4. Child’s pose
Child’s pose is what’s known in yoga as a neutral or resting pose. It’s particularly good for lower back decompression.
Here’s how to do it:
- Get on your knees.
- Press your lower back towards your feet.
- Bend forward and stretch your arms in front of you to the furthest comfortable place you can reach on the floor.
- Hold for 15-20 seconds.
- Repeat at least five times (and throughout the day, if possible).
These exercises are a great way to practice spinal decompression at home.
But there’s one more way to decompress your spine that I want to mention…
How to spinal decompression therapy at home with Back Ease
If you’re interested in trying spinal decompression but struggle with joint pain, you’ll be happy to know that there are back pain relief products available that will work for you.
One I strongly recommend is a high quality back traction device called Back Ease.
After years of research (and trying different products on my own), I’ve come to the conclusion that Back Ease is the solution for spinal decompression that will not stress or hurt your joints.
It’s like inversion therapy without going upside down.
Instead of turning you upside down, the Back Ease — Spinal Decompression System lets you comfortably decompress your spine by simply leaning into the device.
It really couldn’t be any simpler…
1. Step forward until the belt fits comfortably against your waist.
2. Raise the two handles to bring the pad up to your chest and rest the back of your arms on the arm pads.
Relax forward into a gentle stretch. Hold for 2 or 3 minutes then rest and repeat.
As you lean forward in the Back Ease (there’s no kneeling required, either), it decompresses and stretches your spine, creating a separation in your vertebrae, relieving pressure on your spinal discs and nerves.
The separation allows nutrient-rich fluid to circulate within the vertebrae (which your body then uses to heal itself) and allows your discs to “re-absorb” the water gravity is sucking out of them.
The result is short-term (sometimes instantaneous) pain relief coupled with long-term maintenance and healing.
The Back Ease is a device I personally recommend everyone use (even those without back pain) due to its amazing ability help improve and maintain mobility, correct alignment from your shoulders down through your spine to your hip, as well as heal and strengthen your spine over the long term.
Editor’s note: This article has been reviewed by a member of our medical advisory board. The content provided is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult with your physician if you have any questions about your health.
[i] Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1978 Aug;59(8):367-70.
[ii] Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1964 Sep;45:469-72.
[iii] J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1985;6(5):281-8.
[iv] Newcastle General Hospital, Inversion Therapy in Patients with Pure Single Level Discogenic Disease: a pilot randomized trial