Spinal decompression therapy helps relieve pressure along the spine and soothe related pain and discomfort.
The phrase “spinal decompression” refers broadly to a set of nonsurgical and surgical treatments designed to relieve pressure on the neural components of the spine, explains holistic healthcare professional Sanul Corrielus, MD.
The spinal column comprises a series of bones (vertebrae) that are strung together like beads on a lanyard with ligaments and spinal (intervertebral) discs. A pathway of nerves runs through these connective tissues, which are sometimes known as the neural component of the spine.
A variety of different injuries can impact the integrity of the connective tissues along the spinal column. In some cases, this can put pressure on the pathway of nerves and cause pain.
Spinal decompression therapy can help relieve pain as well as eliminate the root cause of the pain, says Corrielus.
Some of the conditions spinal decompression may help with include:
Nonsurgical spinal decompression refers specifically to therapies that are designed to relieve pressure and ease pain, without requiring you to have surgery or be given an anesthetic.
Some of these nonsurgical options can be done from home, including:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications: Acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin (Bayer), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve) can help manage your discomfort.
- Prescription pain medications: Depending on the severity of your pain, a clinician may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants, or opioids to help manage your pain during a flare-up.
- Heat therapy: Most commonly used for muscle tension and tightness, heat therapy can take the form of a heating pad or wrap, a warm gel pack, or a hot bath. Fire cups, sauna, and hot tub use also qualify as heat therapy.
- Cold therapy: Topical ice packs are thought to lower site-specific inflammation and swelling, whereas ice baths are purported to lower overall inflammation.
- Nerve stimulation: Also known as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, this therapy involves using a machine to apply small electrical charges to the area of pain to provide relief. OTC machines are available for at-home use.
Other nonsurgical spinal decompression options require treatment with a physical therapist, acupuncturist, chiropractor, or masseuse.
Some of these treatments include:
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a type of Chinese medicine that involves placing microscopic needles throughout the body to release natural pain-relieving chemicals in the body. For spinal decompression, the needles will be placed along the hot spots an acupuncturist thinks will provide the most relief.
- Chiropractic care: A chiropractor can use chiropractic adjustment (spinal manipulation) to help realign bones and help relieve pain.
- Physical therapy: In some cases, strengthening or mobilizing certain muscle groups can help rehabilitate the area that’s causing trouble.
- Traction: Typically performed by a chiropractor, traction is a methodology that involves using a specific table outfitted with pulleys and weights to stretch your spine. This is sometimes also done on an inversion table.
True to the name, spinal decompression surgery is the name of a broad category of spinal pain and pressure treatments that are surgical.
“The types of surgeries done for spinal decompression all do one of three things,” says Brian Meenan, DC, with Premier Chiropractic in Pittsburgh, PA.
According to Meenan, this includes:
- shaving down bone to make more room for the nerve
- scooping out part of a disc that’s pushing on a nerve
- removing a whole disc and using hardware to fuse one vertebra to another
More specifically, the most common spinal decompression surgeries include:
- Discectomy: Also known as an endoscopic percutaneous disc removal, this procedure involves removing a portion of one of the spinal discs to relieve pressure.
- Laminotomy: This procedure involves removing a portion of the bone that forms the vertebral arch in the spine (lamina) and any bony growths along the spine (osteophytes) to increase the girth of the spinal canal.
- Laminectomy: This procedure is similar to a laminotomy, but the entire lamina is removed.
- Foraminotomy: This procedure involves removing connective tissue and bone around the opening of a nerve root in your spinal column to create more room.
- Corpectomy: This procedure involves removing some part of the vertebrae, along with the discs between the vertebrae, if needed.
- Spinal fusion: This procedure involves permanently connecting two or more vertebrae together with a bone graft.
Yes. Sometimes spinal pressure and pain will go away without any nonsurgical or surgical treatment. In other words, one alternative is time.
“Research tells us that the majority of spinal compression cases will resolve on their own with time and modified activity,” says Meenan.
For more information about exactly which activities you should be changing, talk with a chiropractor or other healthcare professional.
“Resolving pain caused by spinal compression is all about finding the right treatment for your particular issue,” says Corrielus.
Does nonsurgical spinal decompression work?
Yes, it usually does work.
“The main benefit of nonsurgical spinal decompression is that it can provide relief from pain,” says Martin Andersen, DC, with Morley Chiropractic Clinic in Leeds, United Kingdom.
Even pains that a person has been navigating for a very long time, he says.
“The results, of course, vary by individual,” adds Andersen. “But the general consensus among many patients is that nonsurgical spinal decompression absolutely does work.”
How do you know if nonsurgical spinal decompression is right for you?
Nonsurgical spinal decompression therapy is not safe or accessible for everyone.
“Pregnant people, patients with broken vertebrae, patients who have had spinal fusion, patients who have an artificial disc or other implants in their spine, and patients with failed back surgery are not good candidates for nonsurgical spinal decompression,” says Andersen.
Additionally, you may not be a good candidate for nonsurgical treatment if you use blood-thinning medication to treat an underlying condition, have undergone multiple surgeries without pain improvement, or have any condition that may compromise the integrity of the spine.
- ankylosing spondylitis
- spinal stenosis
- spinal infection
- spinal tumor
Is surgical spinal decompression safe?
As with any surgical procedure, there are risks.
“But generally speaking, the chance of risk for surgical spinal decompression is incredibly low as the surgeries are routine and usually minimally invasive,” says Andersen.
When surgical spinal decompression risks do occur, they can include:
How do you know if surgical spinal decompression is right for you?
It could be!
“Patients with issues such as sciatica, bulging discs, and general persistent back and neck pain are all good candidates for surgical spinal decompression,” says Andersen.
People with spinal stenosis, a slipped disc, metastatic spinal cord compression, or broken bones in the spine can also be good candidates.
How do you know if nonsurgical or surgical spinal decompression treatment is best?
By simply talking with a doctor or healthcare professional.
“It’s a good idea to see someone so that your symptoms do not get worse and you’re able to experience relief,” says Meenan.
Spinal decompression therapy is a broad category of treatments designed to provide pressure and pain relief along the spine.
There are surgical and nonsurgical options — which treatment(s) are right for you will vary based on the cause of your pain, the degree of your pain, your age, your overall health, and more.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.