Spinal decompression, also known as disc decompression, is a method which helps to relieve pressure and subsequently pain from pinched nerves within the spinal column. The spinal column is made up of 24 vertebrae, and in between these lie intervertebral discs which provide cushioning between the vertebrae, allowing movement to the spine. They also provide a gap between the vertebrae known as the intervertebral foramen (IVF) through which spinal nerves pass. These nerves connect the central nervous system to the peripheral nervous system (nerves within the body which help send messages to the muscles and organs).
It is when the gap between the vertebra become compromised, such as through spinal misalignment, herniated or bulging discs, that the nerve can become pinched, leading to pain within the back, neck, causing headaches and, in some cases, pain throughout the rest of the body. Pinched nerves are also referred to as neural impingements.
Decompression of the spine can therefore help to treat back or neck pain resulting from many conditions such as pinched nerves (neural impingement) as a result of spinal misalignment, sciatica, degenerative disc disease, bulging or herniated discs and pain from athletic injuries. It can also be used to treat a condition known as posterior facet syndrome or worn spinal joints, and can help to treat pain associated with radiculopathy, diseased or injured spinal nerve roots.
Spinal decompression can be carried out via both surgical and non-surgical methods. Non-surgical methods often use computerized or mechanical traction devices, also known as decompression tables, which stretch the spine and decompress the spinal discs which may have bulged. During the stretching process, a negative vacuum effect is created, sucking the discs back into the spinal cord and reducing pressure on the nerves and reducing pain. As pressure is taken off the nerve roots, blood supply is restored to vertebral discs. This allows for nutrients and water to enter the disc helping the body to heal itself. Non-surgical decompression of the spine is often carried out by a chiropractor.
Treatment may take up to 8 weeks depending on your symptoms, and sessions typically last between 30 – 45 minutes. Decompression is often used in conjunction with ultrasound therapy, electrical stimulation (where muscles are caused to contract by electric currents) and heat or cold therapy. Spinal decompression may not be suitable for some people, including women who are pregnant, those who have tumors or fractures, osteoporosis, and those with diseases or certain conditions of the spine. Your chiropractor will carry out a comprehensive history of your symptoms and health conditions to determine if this treatment option is right for you.
For serious chronic conditions which have not responded to non-surgical treatments, there are surgical options for spinal decompression. These include Corpectomy (the removal of the disc from between the vertebrae) or Foraminotomy (surgery where bone and tissues are removed, increasing the space between the vertebrae and releasing pressure from the nerve). As with any surgery, there are associated side effects with these surgical treatments and the pros and cons of a surgical approach should be discussed with your doctor. Non-surgical treatment options provide a safer approach to addressing pain and may reduce the need for pain medications which often only mask the underlying problem.