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.

Man gets spinal decompression therapyShare on Pinterest
Vladimir Zapletin/Getty Images

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 (NSD) therapy. These devices basically perform a more advanced form of mechanical traction via a sensitive computerized feedback mechanism to decompress the spinal nerve roots through a process called segmental distraction.

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:

Some tests that help determine whether decompression therapy will help include:

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:

  1. You’ll lie flat on a table. The doctor or specialist may put a cushion under your knees to keep your legs up.
  2. 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.
  3. Depending on the machine, the pulley system pulls on the harness to begin stretching out your neck, back, or other affected area.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Was this helpful?

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:

Some limited research also suggests that decompression therapy may be effective in reducing the symptoms associated with compression, but evidence is mixed.

A 2007 review of studies published between 1990 and 2006 suggests that there’s limited evidence that routine decompression therapy is more effective than less costly alternatives with more research supporting them like exercise or spinal manipulation.

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.

A 2022 study looked at a small sample size of 60 people with herniated discs in their low back.

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:

  • pain
  • tenderness
  • swelling
  • numbness
  • tingling

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:

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.