By Steven Hefferon, PTA, CMT
One of the most effective yet overlooked natural treatments for back pain and sciatica is spinal decompression.
Bulging and herniated discs pressing on nerves in the spinal column have been corrected without surgery time and again. Lower back strains have been eased. Sciatica has been eliminated. Even painful arthritic joints have found relief in minutes using some forms of spinal decompression.
Unfortunately, doctors who hear the term “spinal decompression” tend to think of surgery first. More on why that’s a bad idea in a moment. But first…
What Is Spinal Compression and Why Does It Hurt?
Inside the spine are 23 discs which serve as shock absorbers between the vertebrae in the spine. These discs have two basic parts: an inner gel-like center called the nucleus pulposus which serves as a cushion to support your body weight and a tougher, exterior ring called the annulus fibrosus which keeps the center intact.
These discs are more water than anything else. Throughout the day our bodies are pulled downward by gravity. This pressure squeezes fluid out of the disc and into surrounding soft tissue. As fluid is forced out, this compression causes the discs to shrink in height by as much as 20%.
By the end of a typical day an adult has lost as much as a half inch or more in height from the combined fluid loss across all discs since getting out of bed. Most of this fluid is reabsorbed while we sleep. But since there is only a partial recovery each night, the average person will lose anywhere from a half inch to two inches in height over the course of their lifetime.
It’s not the compression of the spinal disc itself that causes pain. Instead, as discs shrink, less distance is maintained between the vertebrae. With less cushioning the vertebrae leaves less space for nerve roots to exit the spinal canal. When these get pinched, nerve pain results. Worse, muscle imbalances in our body can create unequal pressure on one side of the spine leading to a bulging or herniated disc.
Think of a balloon. If you blow up a balloon then squeeze one side of it, the air forced away from the pressure pushes out the other side of the balloon. This is similar to a bulging disc. Squeeze hard enough and the air will rupture the balloon. There’s your herniated disc. When the disc loses its integrity, material from the disc itself can pressure nerves in the spine leading to severe back pain and sciatica.
The Problem with Spinal Decompression Surgery
Ask many doctors about spinal decompression and two types of invasive surgery immediately come to mind. One, called microdiscectomy, removes spinal nerve pressure by cutting away the part of a herniated disc’s nucleus which is pressing against a nerve. The other surgical procedure, called laminectomy, actually cuts away part of the bone itself to relieve pressure from pinched nerves.
I never recommend either surgery except as an absolute last resort. The track record of permanent pain relief from back surgery is horrendous. In fact, back surgery has a failure rate so dismal it’s the only category of surgery with its own clinical name for failure: Failed Back Surgery Syndrome. But that’s not the half of it. The real problem with surgery is it rarely addresses the underlying cause of virtually all non-trauma related cases of back pain.
I often compare the surgical approach to back pain with a car that’s out of alignment. Since the tires receive uneven pressure they wear out faster on the side receiving more pressure. Left uncorrected you may eventually face a catastrophic blowout. Surgery is like replacing the worn tire (symptom) without fixing the alignment (cause). If you don’t correct the underlying cause the problem will return.
How to Decompress — Without Surgery
Instead of cutting away parts of your body, non-surgical spinal decompression relieves pain and pressure by simply reversing the direction of compression along the spine to increase space between vertebrae. Even the slightest increase in space causes a mild suction effect which allows bulging and even herniated discs to return to their proper position. Here are three tools I can recommend for safe spinal decompression right at home.
Option 1: Inversion Tables
Inversion therapy is possibly the oldest spinal decompression treatment in use today. It’s earliest recorded use was well over 2,000 years ago when Hippocrates strung up a patient upside down on a ladder, using ropes and pulleys to hoist him up. Today’s inversion tables use the same concept with a whole lot more comfort and control.
They are also one of the few methods available which decompress not only the whole length of the spine, but the whole length of the body. Decompression starts at the ankle joints where you are held securely to the table. As you invert, the pull of gravity provides a mild traction all the way from your ankles to the top of your spine.
Well designed inversion tables allow the user to easily adjust the steepness of incline. This is important for getting used to the treatment since most adults haven’t hung upside down since elementary school. I recommend lying on an inversion table at just a slight downward angle to start and gradually increase the angle over time as you become more comfortable.
Does inversion therapy really work?
You bet it does! Numerous back pain and sciatica sufferers have told me they experienced their first pain relief in years after just minutes on an inversion table.
Scientific studies back up the anecdotal evidence with hard facts. A study out of England shows patients who added inversion therapy to their physiotherapy routine for sciatica were over 70% less likely to require surgery. Another study found 155 out of 175 patients unable to work due to back pain were able to return to work after just 8 sessions on an inversion table. That’s nearly 9 out of 10 who tried it. And inversion therapy has been found to decrease electrical indicators of muscle pain by 35% within the first 10 seconds of inversion.
Other benefits of inversion therapy
Inversion therapy is one of my favorite methods of spinal decompression because it provides numerous side benefits. First of all, inversion provides a great feeling stretch to numerous muscles and ligaments, increasing your flexibility. Joints like the hips knees, and ankles are “unloaded,” relieving their weight-bearing pressure. This often leads to decreased pain and easier movement of the joint.
Inversion also helps you maintain your height and posture. Since inversion helps your discs reabsorb lost fluids more readily, height normally lost due to spinal disc fluid loss is minimized. Healthier discs and postural correction also help prevent the hunched-back posture so common in older adults due to worn out spinal discs.
Other benefits from inversion therapy include improved circulation, enhanced mental alertness and faster workout recovery time.
Inversion therapy is considered highly safe.
However, some people should consult with their doctor before inverting. Those with high blood pressure, glaucoma, severe circulatory issues or spinal cord trauma are a few examples of individuals who should exercise caution with inversion therapy.
Think Inversion Therapy May Be Right For You? Click Here to Learn More
Option 2: The “Back Ease” Device
(spinal decompression benefits WITHOUT having to hang upside down)
For those unable to use an inversion table or who are simply uncomfortable with the idea of hanging upside down, the Back Ease is a fantastic and affordable alternative for lower and middle back spinal decompression.
With the Back Ease, all you need to be able to do is stand up and lean forward a little, as you will see by clicking here.
When using the BackEase you never have to invert. You simply walk into the unit and lean forward, with the waist level belt on your hips and your hands and arms comfortably supported by the adjustable shoulder pads.
After you position yourself, the waist belt restrains your lower body as you lean forward providing an immediate spinal decompression as your upper body pulls away from your lower body, with little or no pressure on your hips and knees.
Since you have the option of leaning forward more than gravity might normally pull, the leverage gained allows you to decompress more strongly than with an inversion table. Just be careful not to overdo it when starting out with this device.
There is a limitation to the BackEase compared to an inversion table. The BackEase by design doesn’t decompress your neck and or upper back like inversion does. But if you suffer lower back pain, I strongly urge you to try the Back Ease risk-free!
Want to Give the Back Ease a Risk-Free Try? Click Here to Learn More
“Poor Man’s” Spinal Decompression
A quality inversion table or Back Ease will only run you a few hundred dollars. That’s a great investment compared to the price of repeated doctor visits, medicines, or heaven forbid, spinal decompression surgery.
But if you find yourself saying, “Steve, I would love to get an inversion table or the Back Ease, but just don’t have the money right now. Is there anything else I can use to decompress my spine for pain relief in the meanwhile?” Yes there is — a sturdy, large exercise ball.
Remember how gravity provides a gentle traction whenever you’re upside down? Try lying across the ball (facing up). Roll your head and body backward towards the floor, allowing your back to arch and conform to the surface of the ball. While not as effective as an inversion table or the Back Ease, this exercise just may provide enough decompression to give the pain relief you need to get through the day.
We hope you found this post helpful, if you have any related comments or questions, please do so below.
Nosse, L.: Inverted Spinal Traction. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation. 1978 Aug;59(8):367-70.
Manjunath Prasad KS, et al. Inversion Therapy in Patients with Pure Single Level Discogenic Disease: a pilot randomized trial. Regional Neurosciences Centre, Newcastle General Hospital, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK.
Sheffield, FJ.: Adaptation of Tilt Table for Lumbar Traction. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation. 1964 Sep;45:469-72.
Written By: Updated: December 6,2010
31 thoughts on “Spinal Decompression Surgery? Not So Fast…”
I tried an old inversion table and it was hard on my ankles. I bet the newer ones are much more comfortable.
Kevin: that’s one of the huge advantages of the Nubax… no strain on the ankles, knees or hips…
So older people and people with foot, knee and hip issues can often use the Nubax but can’t use an inversion table.
I have tried the inversion table for a whole year. No negative effects, but no improvement of my back problems either.
Do the Yoga instead or walk 5 km per day regularly
I had immediate reduction of sciatica leg and hip pain with the very first use of the Nubax. In a week the sciatica was reduced to a minor problem, at 2 weeks an occasional minor annoyance, and totally gone after 3-4 weeks.
The Nubax is also an important part of my exercise / stretching program for my lower back pain which has prevented me from sleeping in a bed for months – and allows me to do some of the exercises in The Lose The Back Pain program. I have made amazing progress in 2 months and can now do things I have not done in many years.
I have a herniated back L5-S1, I was told by specialists for surgery. I used so many stuff to have a pain free life but the only thing actually work for me is this Inversion Table. I bought one from the Costco that have good padding at ankles and a long lever to tight or release the legs out of the clamps. It works on me very well without any B.S., if someone need to buy, research first and then spend money.
I had 2 back surgery in Jan. and still in a lot of pain. I have a curve spin and we are trying to straitened it. I had a fusion on the back. Now we are talking about doing the whole spine. Is this something I should do. I don,t know what to do. I had a knee surgery and ankle.help
There’s a buzzphrase going around called “Evidenced Based Medicine”. In other words, ‘using treatments/interventions supported by on scientific studies’. While little if any ‘peer-reviewed’ science exists on Inversion, I’ve had patients with success using it. Best to see a health provider with an open, yet discerning mind. They can help determine whether Inversion is indicated for you, and then -very importantly- help you learn what angle to start with, how many seconds to hold it, and how often to do it. They can give guidance as to any precautions (e.g. High Blood Pressure, ankle comfort, etc).
I have your inversion table, and the first time I tried it, it was so relaxing. I could have hung there for hours, BUT, I have a problem: my knees felt as though they were being separated from my legs at the joint. After I used the table a few times, I couldn’t walk for two weeks. I have injured my knees over 300 times in my lifetime, so they are in bad shape. Is there any way I could still use the table? I love it, and I’m sure it would cure my sciatica. I tried the ball, and it was good, but only for a few minutes at a time.
Thank you for your post and question.
While they do read and monitor this blog you would be best asking your question to Steve via the Helpdesk where your concerns and questions can be further addressed with more privacy than on a public blog.
Please use the link below for your query.
Our Customer Support link
Thank you for your query. We are sorry but at this time we do not ship the Inversion Table to Israel.
HOW LONG DO YOU LAY ON THE EXERCISE BALL AND HOW OFTEN. I HAD NECK FUSSION IN 2003(TWO BONES AND A MENTAL PLATE AND 5 SCREWS) WHICH DID HELP THE PAIN GOING DOWN MY LEFT ARM. IN 2009 I HAD A LAMINECTOMY FOR WEEKNESS IN THE BACK OF BOTH LEGS, WHICH DID NOT HELP AND I AM WORSE NOW. SHOULD I TRY THE BALL OR ANY OF THE OTHER METHODS YOU MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE.
Thank you for your post and question.
While they do read this blog you would be best asking your question via the Helpdesk where your concerns and questions can be further addressed in more depth and with more privacy than on a public blog.
Please use the link below for your query to Steve Hefferon or e mail him direct.
Our Customer Support Link
It is possible that persons may require prescription medications or have to undergo physical therapy in order to control sciatica’s painful effects. Surgery or injection therapy may be necessary in some cases. Magnetic Resonance neurography (MRN) is capable of generating a detailed image of virtually any nerve in the body. MRN can accurately image the sciatic nerve, and also shows that medical experts can diagnose and treat sciatic pain that is not caused by a herniated or damaged disc
What about using a pilate ball… leaning over it prone, can also decompress and it is inexpensive.
My back is from L4 and L% fused togeather back in 1959, and now it has tureded into all arthritis and a lt of stiffness, need solution if possable
Hi Steven i like to say ive tried the inversion table,but found it didnt do much for the T- 12 disc it worked fine low back . But since they invented the nubax it sure has helped with t-12. If anybody has problems with shoulders mite want to rethink about using the nubax or try 1 b for purhasing 1
Have L4/L5 and L5/S1 bulging discs and sciatic pain in my right leg that affects my buttocks, hamstring, thigh, knee and below. The leg pain is starting to be exhausting to deal with. How many times a day and for how long do you invert, particularly if doing full inversion, and is partial better, or stick with full inversion. I have been doing it for 5 minute intervals, twice a day. Is this enough.
Jimmy, This article and video will answer you question better then I can…
Most everyone asks, When is enough, enough… and the answer is different for everyone, but the criteria is the same for everyone, and that is, use the device to your tolerance, if you feel good using it, slowly add more times per day and then add more time per use and if you feel uncomfortable scale back the use…
In time you will know what is right for you…
Are either the nubax or inversion table effective when dealing with sciatic problems caused by a synovial cyst at the L4-L5?
Great question, the way the two spinal decompression devices work,is by creating more space between the vertebra, with that separation there is a negative pressure that builds up in and around the disc, and its that pressure that pull the disc matter back in, taking pressure off the nerve and give the use releif.
Well with a syst, it would have to depend specifically were it was located and if it did move where would it go? That said, movement is not that likely and if it did move could it move off the nerve.
I think you would be best advised to ask you physician where is it located and would you benefit from spinal decompression as only they can tell you based on your images if you would benefit from or even if the syst can move, or if any adjustment in the spine would off set the pressure the syst is putting on the nerve.
Please it is worth a call to the Dr and then please let us know what they say
Will this help with pain in the facet area..
Yes, decompression of the spine will also include decompression of the facet joints…
Do you have specials on the heal n sooth? I just got the trial bottle ? I been out of work since 2011 from this work related siattic pain dr told me to file for disability cause im suffering from severe siattic at times i cant walk im in so much pain so with no income comming in rite now i cant afford much i did get the book cds and a trial bottle of heal n sooth id like to get more to give it a fair shot on working. T/y
cheryl, We do have volume discounts everyday, and we occasionally run additional discounts on major holidays, but in-order to see our offers you will need to subscriber to our cutting edge health related Ezine, at the top of this page…
Which device should I get (Inversion table or the Nubax) for my condition?
L3-L4: Severe central canal stenosis due to broad-based disc protrusion, facet joint arthropathy and hypertrophy ligamentum flavum. Moderate bilateral neuroforaminal narrowing.
L4-L5: Moderate to severe central canal stenosis, moderate to severe right and severe left neuroforaminal narrowing due to grade 1 anterolisthesis and severe facet joint arthropathy.
I have had five surgeries on my knees which may cause trouble using the inversion table.
If you recommend the inversion table, when will they be available?
David, Based on what you have indicated about your knees, that excludes the inversion table and we have since updated our product line and we no longer carry the Nubax, but rather we have an even better device that works along the same lines, it is called the BackEase, you can learn more about it here: http://losethebackpain.com/backease.html
Im glad you were specific about the cause of the central Stenosis, as the cause of Stenosis in both areas is much more conducive to spinal decompression, then calcification that builds up in the spine.
We suggest that always consult your physician before the use of any equipment as only they know your complete medical history and only they know if you can tolerate the activity.
I have had Total Knee Replacement surgery on both knees within in the last fifteen months. Could the inversion table cause damage two my prosthetic knees?
Also, I have high blood pressure, but it is under good control. As long as ut is under control, is inversion safe?
Beverly, Those are two good questions, and the answer to both of those questions is, we have to suggest that you consult your orthopedic regarding your knees and you cardiologist regarding your blood pressure, as only they know your complete medical history and only they can answer those questions based on your history and your ability to tolerate the activity.
They may indicate that you can use the device but put limitations on the use, and again only they know what those limitation would be…
In the comments about using these gadgets no mention is made of the individual’s habits of everyday actions. The only safe and reliable long-term solution to sorting out back trouble issues is to get a course of sessions of re-training your habitual eveyday actions. The best of these programmes which has been operationally verified for over 100 years is the F.M.Alexander Technique. So, if you want to rid yourself of back troubles long-term my recommendation is to find a qualified AT teacher and change your everyday habits of action whether they include hanging upside-down or leaning forward or just doing normal everyday actions. The worst is usually faulty sitting habits.
I use an inversion table all the time and it definitely works.
If you have problems with your ankles, use strong sturdy boots that come up past your ankles..
This should help.