Around 80 per cent of adults claim to suffer back pain at some point in their lifetime. It is the leading contributor to absenteeism at the workplace. Unfortunately, the relief gained from pills is usually temporary. Treating the pain itself and not the cause, will only help so much, which is why many individuals turn to options in physiotherapy to improve the quality of their life. In recent years, Spinal Decompression Therapy (SDT), which is a non-surgical method, has gained a lot of popularity.
Spinal Decompression or traction essentially means the same thing. Traction is the force applied and spinal decompression is the result of that force. It has been used in one form or another for centuries. There are paintings and statues from ancient civilizations showing healing practitioners using their hands to apply traction and help people in pain. Traction can be performed either by hand or using a mechanical traction unit. Unfortunately, many people historically associate traction with a torture device though traction has a positive purpose to help and not harm. Traction, by hand or a mechanical unit, has been used commonly by physiotherapists since the 1940’s.
SDT gently stretches the spine – forcing it to change its position. This positional change takes the pressure off the spinal discs and creates a negative intra-discal pressure to promote the repositioning of the herniated or bulging disc. Ultimately, this will promote movement of water, oxygen, and other nutrient-rich fluids into the disks to enhance function and healing. Surgical spinal decompression (eg., Laminectomy or Microdiscectomy) also exists, but our focus is on the non-surgical version.
Old forms of spinal traction can be uncomfortable and not help relieve much pain due to our bodies’ reaction to the steady pull of the traction machine. Under a steady traction pull our spinal muscles may involuntarily contract which makes unloading the injured spinal disc unsuccessful. The older form of traction is a simple steady force that is put on the patient’s body with the intent of unloading the body’s joints, muscles, and other structures. For example, hanging upside-down on an ‘inversion table’ is a common method to put the spine into traction. Inverse tables use one’s body weight to put traction force on the spine, thus, the body weight is working to unload the spine while the person is upside down. Inversion tables may be unsuitable for patients with vascular disease, heart problems, high blood pressure and other health conditions.
SDT is a modern, computerized, updated form of traction. The Decompression Traction System uses computer technology to control variations in the unloading (traction pull) of the spine, effectively avoiding the body’s muscle contraction response. Your physiotherapist will control how many progressive tension steps you experience before reaching maximum tension. Also, he/she has complete control over the duration and frequency of the tensions.
Decompression therapy may be an ideal choice for you if you are suffering from backache resulting from bulging or herniated disc. However, only a qualified physiotherapist or other healthcare practitioner who holds expertise in decompression techniques can make an accurate diagnosis and should provide treatment. He/she may advise against spinal decompression therapy if you are suffering from the following conditions including Pregnancy, Spinal surgeries, Broken vertebrae, Osteoporosis, Metastasized cancer, Spinal tumour or those with artificial spinal implants, amongst others.
As already mentioned, SDT is a non-surgical procedure, during which the patient is positioned face down or face up on a computer-controlled table. The patient will be strapped onto the table using a pelvic harness while the physiotherapist monitors the computer, according to the patient’s requirements. Each session lasts approximately 30 minutes, with the patient requiring at least 12 sessions, on an average.
The results of any medical treatment, including SDT, differ from patient to patient, as these rely on the patient’s unique situation as well as the protocol used by the physiotherapist to ease the symptoms. In most cases, patients should not expect significant change after the first treatment; Results become more apparent towards the end of the treatment protocol.
Several different types of research to illustrate the benefits of decompression therapy are underway while many have shown immense benefits. For example, a study dating back to 1998 shows that 71% of patients getting SDT reported a substantial decrease in the intensity of their pain. Another study found that patients suffering from prolonged back pain claimed to experience a significant difference after treatment. Here, it should also be noted that 80% of the participants were suffering from back pain for over six months. They also admitted using at least two other modes of treatment before choosing SDT.
As a non-surgical and non-drug-based procedure, SDT is extremely safe with minimal chances of hurting the patient. During the treatment, however, many patients could experience discomfort lying in the same position for around 30 minutes. The therapist would need to help the patient relax, but due to the back pain, the posture may be painful, though it is not the procedure itself that causes discomfort. However, most patients don’t feel any pressure during the actual treatment procedure. Hence, the treatment itself is pain-free, and most patients can carry on non-strenuous daily activities right after the procedure.
For those curious about surgical spinal decompression therapy, this is usually the last resort to relieve the patient from back pain. Through this method, surgeons help relieve the pressure on the spine using different surgical procedures. Unfortunately, surgeries come with risks including infection, allergic reaction to anaesthesia, nerve or tissue damage, bleeding, and blood clots. Surgery also does not necessarily guarantee relief from the problem completely. There’s a high probability that the symptoms will return even after the surgery is performed. The decision to opt for surgery is solely dependent on your specific situation and your physiotherapists evaluation. In fact, it is critical that patients who consider the therapy consult thoroughly with their physiotherapist before opting for surgery.