Back decompression aims to relieve back pain by taking pressure off compressed spinal discs. There are surgical and nonsurgical methods of back decompression. Nonsurgical therapy includes spinal traction, while surgical methods include discectomy, spinal fusion, and laminectomies.

Back decompression, or spinal decompression, aims to relieve back pain by taking pressure off the discs in your spine.

There are different types of back decompression, ranging from nonsurgical spinal traction devices to surgical options for more severe issues. The location and cause of your back pain will indicate which method might work best.

More research is needed to fully establish how effective nonsurgical back decompression is, but many people find some form of back decompression helpful when applied correctly.

In general, nonsurgical spinal decompression aims to gently stretch the spine and take pressure off bulging, herniated, or compressed discs. This can be done by a trained professional either manually or with spinal traction devices.

The theory is that careful decompression of the spine can create a negative pressure between the discs that could allow the compressed areas to reposition, offering pain relief.

Surgical back decompression is only suggested after nonsurgical methods of pain relief haven’t helped.

Spinal decompression can potentially relieve symptoms of many different causes of back pain, including:

It’s not yet known whether back decompression is more effective than other nonsurgical therapies for managing back pain. Speak with a doctor or healthcare professional about your various options and what might help your condition.

Nonsurgical spinal traction may be effective at treating mild to moderate compression issues such as degenerative disc disease and herniated discs.

Spinal traction is a form of therapy where a chiropractor, physical therapist, or another trained professional applies pressure on your spine either manually with their hands or with specialized traction machines to open the space between your vertebrae.

These therapies should only be initiated by a trained professional with experience using traction for spine decompression.

At-home devices offering back decompression promises should be used with caution. Without proper instruction, you could cause further harm to your back and worsen any existing issues. Speak with a healthcare professional before using any at-home therapies.

Your physical therapist or chiropractor may be able to suggest specific stretching exercises aimed at relieving back pain that you can do at home.

Does nonsurgical back decompression work?

When used consistently, spinal traction may be able to provide symptom relief from some spinal conditions. In a 2022 study, researchers found that 20-minute sessions with a specific traction device in combination with physical therapy improved symptoms of lower back pinched nerve pain more than physical therapy alone.

However, other studies differ. In 2016, researchers found that traction provided no benefit when combined with an extension-orientated exercise program.

While hard supporting evidence on spinal traction may be limited, the general theory of back decompression is largely accepted, and people often report back pain relief when using back decompression therapies.

Though it may not be harmful to give spinal traction a try, people with health conditions such as cancer, active infections, or osteoporosis may not make good candidates.

Spinal decompression surgeries might be recommended if other methods don’t help.

According to the National Health Service (NHS), some doctors consider 4 months after symptom onset the ideal time for surgery if conservative treatments aren’t effective.

For treating stenosis in the lower spine, many doctors consider surgery appropriate if you have:

  • no significant pain relief after conservative treatment for 3 to 6 months
  • moderate to severe nerve root radiation pain or damage to a nerve root without pain
  • pain in your legs that flares when you walk less than 100 to 200 meters (109 to 219 yards)
  • progressive scoliosis causing worsening symptoms
  • symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, which can cause bladder or bowel dysfunction

Types of surgery

Three commonly used back decompression surgical techniques include:

  • Laminectomy: During a laminectomy, your surgeon removes the back part of a vertebra called the lamina to relieve pressure on your spinal cord.
  • Discectomy: During a discectomy, a portion of a disc between your vertebrae is removed to relieve pressure on your spinal cord.
  • Spinal fusion: During spinal fusion, two or more vertebrae are fused together to prevent movement in a spinal joint.

You’ll usually stay in the hospital for 1 to 4 days after your surgery, depending on the complexity and your overall health. Most people can walk within a day, but you may have to wait about 6 weeks to undergo strenuous activity.

According to the NHS, there’s good evidence that decompression surgery can be an effective treatment for people with severe pain from compressed nerves. Many people experience significant pain relief and have better mobility.

In a 2022 review of studies, researchers found that decompression surgery alone provided similar symptom relief as decompression with fusion for lower back compression. The researchers recommended decompression surgery alone because fusion causes permanent loss of mobility in the joint.

Both surgical and nonsurgical treatments come with some risks.

Nonsurgical risks

When done by a trained professional, physical therapy and chiropractic treatments for back decompression are very low-risk. Spinal traction is generally safe but can cause side effects such as:

Surgical risks

Potential risks of surgical decompression include:

  • infection
  • excess bleeding
  • nerve or blood vessel injury
  • blood clots
  • dural tear, a tear of the outer covering of your spinal cord

For discectomy, a wound or deep infection occurs at a rate of 2 to 3%, and nerve root injury occurs at a rate of 1 to 2%.

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about back decompression.

Does back decompression hurt?

You may feel some temporary soreness after nonsurgical treatments such as physical therapy or traction. You shouldn’t experience a great deal of pain when the treatment is performed by a trained professional.

How long do results last?

You may experience temporary or permanent relief from your symptoms after a course of back decompression treatments. The degree of relief depends on factors such as the underlying cause of your compression and the type of treatment you receive.

Do back decompression devices work?

There’s mixed research on whether spinal decompression devices used in spinal traction are effective. Traction might be most effective when it’s combined with other treatments such as physical therapy.

Back decompression therapies may help relieve back pain from conditions such as herniated discs, sciatica, pinched nerves, or spinal stenosis.

The goal of these therapies is to gently stretch the spine and relieve pressure on the discs in your back. There are nonsurgical and surgical methods of back decompression.

Experts usually recommend trying nonsurgical treatments for back compression before undergoing surgery. A doctor may recommend surgery if nonsurgical treatments, such as spinal traction and physical therapy, aren’t effective for about 3 to 6 months.