Back or spinal decompression refers to a group of treatments used to relieve pressure on spinal discs. A healthcare professional may recommend surgical and nonsurgical therapies for decompression.

Spinal (intervertebral) discs are circular fibro-cartilage structures that cushion the vertebral bones along the spinal column. They allow some movement in the spine and create space for the spinal nerves to exit the spinal canal.

Many conditions and injuries may cause pressure on the spinal discs to build up. When this happens, the intervertebral space collapses, putting pressure on nearby spinal nerves. This can cause pain and make certain movements difficult.

A doctor may recommend different decompression treatment options depending on the type and cause of an individual’s back pain.

This article will discuss different methods of back decompression, as well as the risks and benefits of treatment.

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Back decompression works to relieve pressure on the spinal nerves. A range of conditions — like bulging discs, sciatica, spinal degeneration, and spinal injury — can cause nerve root or spinal nerve compression.

Generally, nonsurgical back decompression aims to lengthen the spine through gentle stretching to relieve pressure. This may encourage parts of the spine to reposition and heal, as well as reduce inflammation.

There are many methods for nonsurgical back decompression. Healthcare professionals will only recommend surgical treatment in cases where nonsurgical therapies have been unsuccessful.

There are some risks associated with both surgical and nonsurgical back decompression. However, both methods can be effective at relieving back pain and other symptoms.

Individuals should only use at-home back decompression devices and methods after speaking with a healthcare professional. Using these therapies incorrectly or in the wrong circumstances may cause injury.

A doctor may recommend a surgical method of back decompression if nonsurgical methods have not worked or cause unwanted side effects.

An individual is more likely to require surgery if they have experienced persistent symptoms for more than 2 months. Some experts believe surgery may have the best results 4 months after symptoms begin. Waiting too long may cause permanent damage.

The surgical methods of back decompression include:

  • Discectomy: During this procedure, the surgeon removes part of the spinal disc to relieve pressure on the compromised spinal nerve.
  • Laminectomy: This involves a surgeon removing a layer of degenerated vertebral bone in the spine to relieve pressure on the affected nerve.
  • Spinal fusion: The surgeon will use metal hardware or a bone graft, which is bone taken from another part of the body, to join two vertebrae together. This limits movement between the two vertebrae, meaning there’s a smaller chance of irritation or compression.

Various surgical approaches are available. In “open” procedures, the surgeon performs the operation through a conventional skin incision in the back.

In some cases, spinal fusion will be performed as keyhole surgery. During this operation, the surgeon uses small incisions and specialized equipment.

According to a 2022 review, decompression surgeries such as discectomies and laminectomies alone may be as effective at relieving symptoms as the same surgeries combined with spinal fusion. Spinal fusion causes permanent changes in the spine’s mobility, so some doctors may recommend decompression surgery without it.

Nonsurgical methods of back decompression include a range of treatments including physical therapy and various techniques. Doctors may recommend nonsurgical treatments for mild to moderate lumbar spinal stenosis, a condition involving the narrowing of the lower spinal cord.

Nonsurgical back decompression is delivered through a method called spinal traction. This involves a trained professional, such as a physical therapist, applying pressure to the spine in order to relieve pressure. They may use their hands or specialized machines.

This process aims to expand the space between the vertebrae and relieve pressure on the nerves.

It’s possible to buy at-home spinal traction devices. However, individuals should only use these methods with the guidance of a trained professional as misuse may result in injury or worsened symptoms.

There are some risks associated with both surgical and nonsurgical back decompression.

Surgical back decompression risks

There are always some risks involved when undergoing surgery, including:

  • infection
  • bleeding
  • reaction to anesthesia
  • blood clots

Risks associated with back decompression surgeries include:

  • return of symptoms
  • nerve injury
  • blood vessel injury
  • epidural scarring (excessive scarring at the root of the spinal nerve)
  • loss of function
  • dural tear (tear in the outer lining of the spinal cord that can cause spinal fluid leaks)

Nonsurgical back decompression risks

When delivered by a trained professional, spinal traction is generally safe. Possible risks include:

  • increased pain
  • muscle aches
  • spasms
  • nausea
  • fainting/feeling faint

However, spinal traction is not a suitable treatment for individuals with certain conditions, including:

  • some types of cancer
  • osteoporosis (a condition causing weak bones)
  • active infections
  • aortic aneurysm (a bulge in the main blood vessel leaving the heart)
  • active gastric ulcer disease (sores in the stomach lining)
  • ligamentous instability (a condition causing loose ligaments and unstable joints)
  • cardiac or respiratory insufficiency (when the heart cannot pump blood as efficiently as it needs to)

If an individual is considering either surgical or nonsurgical back decompression treatments, they may want to ask their doctor some questions, such as:

  • How will this treatment help with my condition?
  • Will the results of treatment be permanent?
  • Why has a certain treatment plan been recommended?
  • Are nonsurgical treatment options suitable for me?
  • How long will it take to notice an improvement in symptoms after treatment?
  • What are the risks of the procedure/treatment?
  • How should I prepare for surgery?

Individuals may also want to ask their doctor about the cost of treatment or surgery and if it will be covered by their health insurance.

Back decompression is a treatment healthcare professionals may use to treat a wide range of conditions.

There are both surgical and nonsurgical methods of back decompression, and a doctor will usually only recommend surgery in cases where other methods have not worked.

Physical therapists and other healthcare professionals can provide a wide variety of nonsurgical back decompression therapies to incorporate spinal traction, performed manually or with a mechanical device.