What is it and Will it Work for You and Your Condition?
By Steven Hefferon, PTA, CMT
Generally speaking, spinal decompression is a linear force pulling on the body to create negative pressure between each vertebra. This negative pressure will cause a misaligned disc to be sucked back into place and create more space between the vertebrae so that more blood and oxygen can get to the area. It also will remove any pressure on spinal nerves because of the misalignment.
That’s the basic theory behind the techniques I’m going to outline for you. Each has its pros and cons, and none of them should be considered alone but rather as one part of a comprehensive back pain recovery program. A word of caution: The fact that a technique may have gotten approval from the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t necessarily mean it works better than any of the others – or is even worth trying. More about that later.
Some conditions typically treated with spinal decompression include bulging or herniated discs, lumbar strains, sciatica, degenerative discs, spinal arthritis, degenerative joint disease, post-surgical low back pain, and acute back pain.
Let’s take a look at four spinal decompression techniques, their effect on the body, and their intended outcomes.
This practice of hanging upside down to apply gentle traction to the spine has been around for more than 2,000 years. It is based on the principal that when you invert your body, the amount of weight pulling on each level of your spine is directly proportional to the amount of force needed to produce proper alignment.
Here’s how it works: The weight of your head exerts just the right amount of pull for your cervical spine. The weight of your head, neck, chest, shoulders and arms is exactly the right amount of combined weight needed for the thoracic spine. The same goes for the lumbar spine: the weight of your entire upper body provides just what’s needed to cause spinal decompression, creating the negative pressure between each vertebra that will suck the misaligned disc back into place.
Millions of inversion tables have been sold throughout the world over the past 25 years. These devices allow you to comfortably recline your body until it is completely inverted, and the results are indisputable. Inversion works and should be considered part of any complete healing program.
As a massage therapist, I’d have to say that this is my favorite technique because it allows you to put every single joint under manual distraction – from the fingers to the spine. Now when I say manual distraction, I mean that someone has to do the pulling. While pulling on a finger is easy, pulling to distract the spine is not. So, if you decide to have a health care professional work on your back using manual distraction, understand that their strength and skill level will determine how effective they are going to be.
A personal note: In 1991 at one of Pennsylvania’s top ski resorts, I took a few too many moguls and put my back into serious misalignment, which caused me a great deal of pain. I hobbled in to work the following Monday and had one of our physical therapists try manual distraction on me. Within two minutes I walking upright and pain free. I can tell you first hand-It works!
Mechanical Pelvic Traction
This is the most common spinal decompression technique, and most physical therapists and chiropractors will have this piece of equipment in their offices. There are two harnesses – one for your chest and one for your hips. The external force can be easily controlled, and the device can be set on continuous or intermittent pull. Most first-time clients start at 50 percent of their body weight. Your legs should be at a 90 degree angle to your upper your body. If that’s not enough, the table you are lying on can be split in two so your hips can move with the pull. Typical treatments will last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. On each subsequent visit, the amount of pull should be increased by 10 pounds.
I have personally administered thousands of pelvic traction treatments. Most of my patients say they feel better immediately after one treatment, though I highly recommend additional visits to ensure long-lasting results. Having said that, I can tell you that in 1993 I put a young male on pelvic traction for 20 minutes who came to my office complaining of severe pain from a herniated disc. When he got off the device, it was like a miracle. I never saw him after that visit, so I can’t say he never had a problem again. But the initial treatment brought him almost instant relief.
State of the art DRX 9000 Spinal Decompression
Yes, it looks cool and, yes, the FDA has approved some of its claims – for whatever that may be worth these days. The manufacturers want you to believe that there is a difference between this device and all the other spinal decompression techniques. If they really can control the angle and amount of pull, while also monitoring the resistance the body is giving back to the device, it sure sounds good. But over the years here at The Healthy Back Institute, I have heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have gone through DRX treatments. I have yet to find anyone who has gotten relief. I can’t say that you won’t get relief from this device. I’m just saying I have not heard good things about it.
Dollars and Sense
Then there’s the cost. An inversion table will run you anywhere from $300 to $500 and will probably last a lifetime. Manual Distraction and Pelvic Traction are going to cost you the going rate per visit to see a qualified therapist. A typical treatment plan using the DRX 9000, or the VAX-D, or the IDD would look something like this – a minimum of 20 treatments, probably three times a week for 6 to 8 weeks. The average payout is around $4,000, and keep in mind that I have not heard one success story about this approach.
The Missing Link
I’ve presented an overview of spinal decompression, given you the pros and cons of various techniques, and told you a few success stories. Before going any further, I again want to caution you that spinal decompression by itself may not give you the relief you seek, but it can be an important part of an overall strategy.
As I mentioned earlier, all of the conditions I’ve listed above are caused by muscle imbalances. Those imbalances, in turn, bring on what is called “postural dysfunction.”
If we dig a little deeper, we find that those postural dysfunctions force the pelvis into an abnormal position. As a result, the spine is forced into abnormal curvature, which over time causes abnormal wear and tear on the discs and vertebrae. This can lead to any number of painful conditions..
Because the development of muscle imbalances and postural dysfunction doesn’t happen overnight, it’s important to understand that your recovery must be a process rather than a quick fix.
If you leave out any of the essential components, you are just wasting your time and money. The good news is that our bodies are very forgiving and extremely adaptive. Based on our habits, patterns, and posture, our muscles are being told throughout the day how they should act. If we have bad habits, patterns, and posture, our muscles will gradually get out of balance. If this continues long enough, we will start experiencing symptoms of one of the conditions I mentioned earlier.
Here’s what I recommend: First, have an assessment done to see if your have any muscle imbalances or postural dysfunction. Next, you need a very precise, targeted stretching and exercise plan based on that assessment. In a sense, you will need an unbalanced workout to bring your body back into balance.
Question: Does the DRX-9000 stretch any of the muscle groups of the hips? Does pelvic traction strengthen any of the core muscles? In fact, do any of the spinal decompression techniques correct muscle imbalances?
The answer to all of those questions is NO. But you shouldn’t be surprised. After all, how could using an external force to create space for the disc to get sucked back into position work if the underlying muscle imbalance isn’t addressed? Even if you got temporary relief, how could you expect the disc to remain in the correct position?
Look at it this way: Back pain is a physical problem that needs a physical solution. Your treatment needs to include a strict stretching and exercise program to get your body back into balance. Once your pelvis is in the correct position and your spine has the correct curvature, your discs naturally will have more space and be less likely to come in contact with any spinal nerves. If you do all you can to correct your muscle imbalances and still experience discomfort, then spinal decompression may be a good option.
Because it can be difficult to find a therapist or chiropractor who will take the time to adequately address muscle imbalances as part of your treatment program, you may want to print out this article and take it along with you. If your health care professional doesn’t work this way, ask him or her to recommend someone who does.
Another alternative is to learn the techniques and principles of Muscle Balance Therapy™
50 Years of Back Pain Gone in Just Days!
Jerry Talisman had suffered from chronic back pain on and off for over 50 years. Like most people, he had tried it all… chiropractors, physical therapy, he even overdosed on Tylenol but nothing gave him lasting relief until he discovered muscle balance therapy.
Unlike most treatments which only deliver temporary relief, if any at all, muscle balance therapy delivers lasting relief to 8 out of 10 people who use it because it addresses the underlying cause of the pain, not just the symptoms.
If you suffer from any type of back pain, neck pain or sciatica, I urge you to learn more about this breakthrough new treatment. Click here to learn more…
Updated: May 16,2011