If you’re having pain in your spine, hips, knees, or joints, decompression therapy could be an option to help you feel better. This therapy can reduce pain without needing surgery.
Decompression therapy is a treatment that helps reduce pain from pressure on nerves by stretching out the affected area. This treatment may help if other treatments like rest, physical therapy, or acupuncture haven’t helped.
Compression of the spinal nerve roots is a very common injury. But compression can also affect your hips, knees, and other areas where nerves interact with joints. This means that compression can cause severe pain that disrupts daily activities like sitting and standing.
Decompression therapy can often help relieve nerve pain without surgery, which reduces risks and recovery time. Read on to learn more about how decompression therapy works, when you’ll know if you need it, and whether it’s a safe choice to treat compressed nerves.
Nerves can become compressed for many reasons — from inflammation and injury to aging and bone loss around your joints.
Decompression therapy opens up the spaces in areas like your spine or knees where the spinal nerve roots pass through to reduce pressure on them. This can also help reposition joints and treat slipped discs so that you don’t continue having severe or disruptive pain.
Mechanical traction can be used to provide spinal compression therapy. This involves manually opening up the spaces where spinal nerve roots pass through. Physical therapists or chiropractors typically perform this type of traction.
Another common therapy involves using traction devices — sometimes called nonsurgical spinal decompression
Decompression therapy is not typically a first-line treatment for nerve pain caused by compression.
For mild or temporary compressed nerve pain, a doctor may recommend:
- resting the affected area
- applying ice or heat regularly
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications
- using home pain relief techniques, such as stretching
- wearing a brace to prevent further pain or injury
If these treatments don’t work, a doctor may recommend decompression therapy.
You may also need decompression therapy if you have health conditions that result in nerve compression like:
- frequent bulging or slipped discs from joint or autoimmune conditions like arthritis or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS)
- degenerative disc diseases, which cause spinal discs to wear down quickly
- spinal cord injuries or diseases, which can cause pain in spinal nerve roots (known as radiculopathy)
- sciatica, which causes severe pain in your lower back, buttocks, and legs
- spinal stenosis, which narrows the openings in your spine around your nerves and causes back pain
Some tests that help determine whether decompression therapy will help include:
- bone scan, which helps look for breaks, masses, or inflammation that may be causing pain
- diskography, which uses contrast dye and computed tomography (CT) to look for damaged or injuries discs
- electrical tests like electromyography (EMG), nerve conduction velocity (NCV) tests, or evoked potential tests, which are used to monitor electrical signals from your nerves to your brain
- X-rays, which are used to look at bones that may be broken or injured and are putting pressure on nearby nerves
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is used to create detailed, cross-sectional views of the affected area
A traction — or NSD — device is often used in decompression therapy. You’ll usually see these devices in outpatient facilities like chiropractic treatment centers or clinics focused on neck and back care.
Decompression therapy at a glance
One decompression therapy session takes about 20 to 30 minutes. Here’s how the procedure typically works:
- You’ll lie flat on a table. The doctor or specialist may put a cushion under your knees to keep your legs up.
- The doctor buckles a harness around your waist that’s attached to a pulley system on the machine. If you’re receiving neck decompression, the harness or buckle may go around your head.
- Depending on the machine, the pulley system pulls on the harness to begin stretching out your neck, back, or other affected area.
- After stretching the area, the pulley returns the harness to its original position. The doctor may also monitor real-time data showing the force being applied to the area and angles that may help relieve pressure.
- The doctor decides how many times to repeat the stretching process. They may adjust the force and angles that the machine uses throughout the session.
A session of this type of therapy may relieve pain that’s the result of a mild injury, strain, or overuse of a joint.
You may need to attend multiple sessions — from 5 to 30 depending on your pain and condition — for chronic pain, swelling, or damage in your joints.
There are very few reported risks associated with decompression therapy. Some reported side effects can include:
- mild, temporary soreness in the affected area
- muscle spasms
- shooting pains down the legs
- persisting pain if the underlying cause isn’t treated
Some limited research also suggests that decompression therapy may be effective in reducing the symptoms associated with compression, but evidence is mixed.
An older set of clinical guidelines published in 2012 looked comprehensively at various treatments for lumbar disc herniation with radiculopathy, including decompression therapy. Many treatments didn’t have enough evidence to support their effectiveness, but nonsurgical decompression showed some promise in relieving pain and disability associated with compression.
The researchers separated people into two groups — 30 who received decompression therapy and 30 who didn’t. Results showed that decompression therapy helped noticeably improve symptoms in the group who received it, while the other group didn’t experience any improvement.
It’s common to feel sore or stiff after a decompression therapy session.
But noticeable pain is not typical. Contact the doctor right away if you’re still experiencing:
The cost for a single decompression therapy session can range from $20 to $200, according to online estimates. Multiple sessions to treat severe or chronic nerve compression may cost up to $6,000 for a full course of treatment.
Decompression therapy costs can vary based on:
- your health insurance coverage, such as Medicare for manipulation of the spine
- the facility where you choose to get treatment
- the doctor or specialist who performs the treatment
Decompression therapy is considered an effective treatment for pain caused by compressed nerves that’s severe or chronic and disrupts your daily life.
Contact a doctor or chiropractic specialist if you have severe pain in your spine, lower back, hips, or knees that doesn’t go away with treatment at home or other therapies.