Spinal Traction and Decompression

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Back pain is one of the leading causes of visits to the doctor and missed work (1). Some 16 million Americans live with chronic back pain. Conditions causing back pain vary greatly but include pulled muscles, ruptured or herniated vertebral discs, arthritis and osteoporosis, and irregularities to the spine’s natural curvature. Each condition can cause different kinds of back pain and may call for various treatment methods.

You may have heard of spinal traction as a form of physical therapy or chiropractic care to treat certain kinds of back pain. It works by increasing the length between the vertebrae (the bones in the back) and relieve back pain associated with herniated discs and some abnormalities with the bones in the back. This treatment is also known as spinal decompression.

Traction or decompression can be performed non-surgically, or, for more severe cases of chronic back pain, your doctor may want to perform surgical decompression.

Non-Surgical Lumbar Traction

The lumbar vertebrae are the bones of the lower spine. These vertebrae are larger than the bones of the thoracic (mid-spine) or cervical (neck) vertebrae and support much of the weight of the torso.

They are also unique in that these bones do not contain any portion of the spinal cord; rather, the nerves of the spinal cord exit the spine just above the lumbar spine and branch out to the lower portions of the body. Because of this, injuries of the lumbar spine often cause low back pain but rarely result in paralysis.

For mild cases of low back pain, your doctor or chiropractor might recommend non-surgical spinal traction. Several methods of lumbar traction exist; however, the purpose of each method is to lengthen your spine and increase the distance between each vertebra.

In one method, a practitioner places weights on your back above or below the affected area. The pressure applied from the weights slowly lengthens your spine.

Another standard method for lumbar traction is through the use of a special table. When you lay on this table, you can push or pull against a mechanical weight, forcing the muscles in your back to stretch the bones in your spine. The VAX-D® table is particularly effective for relieving mild, chronic back pain (2). For more information on the VAX-D®, contact our front desk at PCSM, and we can direct you a specialized practitioner that can help you.

Surgical Lumbar Decompression

For more severe low back pain (or recurrent pain), your doctor might recommend a lumbar decompression surgery. During this surgery, your surgeon removes a portion of the affected bone or bones.

In some cases, your surgeon may only make an incision into your bone without actually removing any portion of it. In other cases, your surgeon might need to perform a bone graft after removing part of your vertebra to allow your bones to retain their ability to support your body.

Lumbar decompression surgery is very effective for severe spinal stenosis (3), a common condition in which the space between the vertebrae shrinks. This narrowing of space can be caused by a herniated disc, a traumatic injury, or abnormal growths in the area. 

After decompression surgery, you will likely experience significant pain relief for up to five years although the results cannot be guaranteed as each individual’s spine is unique.

Non-Surgical Cervical Traction

The cervical vertebrae are the bones in your neck. Unlike the lumbar vertebrae in the low back, the bones of the cervical spine carry the largest portion of your spinal cord. They also support a much smaller portion of your body’s weight. Injuries to your neck can be severe and may lead to paralysis.

As with low back pain, non-surgical traction therapy can address neck pain. Unlike lumbar traction, however, there are only a couple of standard methods of cervical traction. A physical therapist or a chiropractor may manually stretch the neck to increase the space between your neck’s vertebrae, or they may offer the option of a cervical traction device to be used at home or in-office.

Surgical Cervical Decompression

With severe and recurrent neck pain, your doctor may recommend a cervical decompression surgery. During this procedure, your surgeon will remove the parts of your bone(s) that are compressing your spinal cord or other soft tissues in your neck. Like lumbar decompression surgery, a bone graft may be necessary for your spine to retain its strength.

Cervical decompression alleviates neck pain and other symptoms that may occur when your vertebrae are too close together and put pressure on your spinal cord. The relief from these symptoms is very effective; however, cervical decompression surgery carries a much higher risk of side effects than lumbar decompression surgery. 

Be sure to discuss the risks with your surgeon and be sure that precautions are taken to avoid damaging accessory structures or to immobilize the neck for extended periods. These precautions can significantly reduce the risk of side effects (4).

Prevention of Neck and Back Pain

Even if you aren’t experiencing chronic neck or back pain now, statistics show that as many as 80% of people will experience some form of back pain in their lifetimes. Therefore, it is essential to be proactive about your health, especially when it concerns your spine. Strength training, yoga, self-care exercises, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and physical therapy have a protective effect and may help to prevent neck or back pain (5).

By taking a small amount of time out of your day, even just twice a week, you may save yourself a lot of pain, missed work, and costly treatment later on.

Interested in learning more or booking an appointment with one of our experienced practitioners?

Give us a call at 310-873-4414!


  1. St Sauver JL, Warner DO, Yawn BP, et al. Why patients visit their doctors: assessing the most prevalent conditions in a defined American population. Mayo Clin Proc. 2013; 88(1):56-67. DOI: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2012.08.020.
  2. Daniel, DM. Non-surgical spinal decompression therapy: does the scientific literature support efficacy claims made in the advertising media? Chiropr Osteopat. 2007; 15:7. DOI: 10.1186/1746-1340-15-7.
  3. Anjarwalla NK, Brown LC, McGregor AH. The outcome of spinal decompression surgery 5 years on. Eur Spine J. 2007; 16(11):1842-1847. DOI: 10.1007/s00586-007-0393-z.
  4. Wang M, Luo XJ, Deng QX, Li JH, Wang N1. Prevalence of axial symptoms after posterior cervical decompression: a meta-analysis. Eur Spine J. 2016; 25(7):2302-2310. DOI: 10.1007/s00586-016-4524-2.
  5. Brämberg EB, Bergström G, Jensen I, Hagberg J, Kwak L. Effects of yoga, strength training and advice on back pain: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2017;18(1):132. DOI: 10.1186/s12891-017-1497-1.
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