What is Spinal Decompression?
Though you may not realize it, spinal decompression is an important topic for many people suffering from debilitating back pain. Spinal decompression refers to the process of relieving pressure on one or more pinched (or impinged) nerves in the spinal column. The pressure on such nerves can cause pain, restrict mobility, and a host of other physical problems.
A vast range of spinal conditions, including spinal stenosis, disc degeneration, bulging, herniated or slipped discs, and facet syndrome, can place pressure on nerves emanating from the spinal column. This may create the need for spinal decompression surgery.
This article will dive into the specifics of spinal decompression and how it could benefit your recovery from chronic back pain.
Defining Spinal Decompression
So, what is spinal decompression? It’s a treatment for various spinal conditions that can be performed both surgically and non-surgically.
Non-surgical spinal decompression utilizes mechanical, computer-controlled traction devices to reduce the pressure placed on nerves in specific portions of the spine. Inversion therapy, in which patients hang upside down, is another form of non-surgical spinal decompression. Certain spinal decompression exercises may also be effective for alleviating back and nerve pain.
For patients who don’t respond to non-invasive methods, spinal decompression surgery can provide dramatic symptom improvement. In this surgical procedure, portions of the bone or tissue of the spine that impinge on a nerve are cut away, relieving the pressure.
Historically, the spinal fusion procedure has been performed in conjunction with spinal decompression surgery. Fusion stabilizes the spine at the point where the decompression procedure was performed.
Unfortunately, spinal fusion, which fuses two (or more) vertebrae to enhance spinal stability, eliminates the independent motion of the fused vertebrae. This may accelerate the degeneration of adjacent vertebrae.
Today, the TOPS™ (Total Posterior Spine) System provides a spinal fusion alternative for patients who are considering spinal decompression surgery. In contrast to fusion, TOPS preserves the complete range of the spine’s natural motion and has been shown to provide better outcomes than fusion in global clinical studies.
Why Would You Do a Spinal Decompression?
A large nerve pathway extends through the middle of the spinal canal. When these nerves become compressed and irritated, whether due to an injury or age-related degeneration, you may experience lasting pain. With this in mind, patients undergo spinal decompression for relief from spinal nerve compression symptoms.
Non-surgical spinal decompression is performed as a conservative treatment option for persistent back pain. Whether caused by a condition like spinal stenosis or simply poor posture, back pain can benefit from non-invasive spinal decompression.
Surgical spinal decompression, on the other hand, is typically done only for severe spinal conditions. It’s generally only considered after the patient has undergone six to 12 months of non-surgical treatment without experiencing improvement.
Additionally, surgical spinal decompression is typically implemented for patients experiencing severe spinal nerve compression and who are at risk of permanent nerve damage.
What Conditions Does Spinal Decompression Treat?
Spinal decompression, both surgical and non-surgical, may be used to treat:
- A bulging disc
The tough outer shell of an intervertebral disc becomes weaker and thinner with age. Eventually, the disc may flatten and bulge out into the spinal canal.
- A herniated disc
A herniated or slipped disc goes one step beyond a bulging disc. When a disc becomes herniated, it means that the soft disc interior protrudes through a crack in the disc exterior.
Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve, which extends from the lower back through the backs of both legs, becomes irritated. This results in symptoms including burning, tingling, numbness, pain, and/or weakness along the path of the sciatic nerve.
- Degenerative disc disease
Degenerative disc disease refers to back pain and other symptoms caused by a degenerated intervertebral disc. This degeneration typically occurs from age-related wear-and-tear.
- A pinched spinal nerve
A pinched or compressed spinal nerve causes symptoms like pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness.
- Spinal stenosis
Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal gradually becomes narrower. This condition limits the amount of open space in the spinal canal, which can trigger spinal nerve compression.
Spondylolisthesis develops when one of the vertebrae in the spine shifts out of its regular position and settles on the bone directly beneath it. In some cases, the displaced vertebra compresses nearby nerves.
What Happens During Spinal Decompression?
Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression
During non-surgical spinal decompression, the patient is positioned on a motorized device like a traction table. This device uses motorized traction to gently stretch the spine. This process alters the alignment of the spine, as well as the forces placing stress on the spine.
When non-surgical spinal decompression is successful, it removes pressure from the nerves and other spinal structures. It also increases the flow of oxygen, nutrients, and water to the spine, which promotes healing.
Surgical Spinal Decompression
Although the goal of surgical spinal decompression is the same as its non-surgical counterpart, the process is completely different. For one, numerous techniques of surgical spinal decompression exist, namely laminectomy/laminotomy, foraminotomy/foraminectomy, and discectomy.
- Laminectomy and laminotomy involve removing some or all of the lamina. The lamina is a piece of bone positioned at the back of the spinal canal that acts like a roof. By eliminating some or all of the lamina, surgeons can create more space in the spinal canal and resolve nerve compression.
- Foraminotomy and foraminectomy decompress spinal nerves by surgically enlarging the openings (foramen) around the nerve roots.
- Discectomy simply involves removing a portion of an intervertebral disc. This process can resolve nerve compression caused by a damaged spinal disc.
Do Chiropractors Do Spinal Decompression?
Chiropractors perform non-surgical spinal decompression therapy. Only a qualified, licensed spinal surgeon can perform spinal decompression surgery.
A spinal decompression chiropractor stretches and manipulates the spine to alleviate back and leg pain. This process is entirely non-invasive, making it a safe, low-risk choice for patients to consider.
Your chiropractor may also be able to recommend spinal decompression stretches. You can perform these stretches anywhere, at any time, making it possible to undergo spinal decompression at home. For example, reaching your arms above your head, interlacing your fingers, and trying to touch your palms to the ceiling is one stretch that can help decompress the spine.
How Quickly Does Spinal Decompression Work?
Most patients who undergo non-surgical spinal decompression therapy from a professional chiropractor will experience symptom relief after four to six weeks. In this period, patients may undergo weekly spinal decompression sessions. Some patients may notice pain relief after just one session, while others will need more sessions to experience significant symptom improvement.
Surgical spinal decompression works differently. Patients will likely experience soreness and inflammation for a few days after the procedure. Post-operative pain will gradually improve, with most patients needing approximately four to six weeks to regain their mobility.
Spinal decompression surgery is commonly paired with spinal fusion. As aforementioned, the goal of fusion is to prevent spinal instability by permanently connecting the affected vertebrae. Spinal fusion significantly lengthens the recovery time for spinal decompression surgery, requiring up to a year for patients to make a full recovery.
When Does Spinal Decompression Surgery Become a Necessity?
Spinal decompression is typically considered necessary if:
- The patient has already undergone six to 12 months of non-surgical therapies and their symptoms haven’t improved (or have gotten worse).
- The patient is experiencing debilitating back pain and/or neurological symptoms that are diminishing their ability to get through the day.
- The patient is disabled due to back pain and/or neurological symptoms.
- The patient is at risk of permanent nerve damage.
If you’re a patient whose pinched spinal nerve is not responding to non-invasive decompression methods, make sure to discuss all of your surgical options with your physician.