Non-Surgical Decompression Therapy: How to Save Your Spine as You Age

Until this week, I wasn’t even sure how to start this post. I was contemplating how I could make the topic of decompression therapy attractive. Then I realized after an interaction with a patient that all I needed to do was tell the truth – something I firmly believe in as a man and a chiropractic physician.

I was speaking with a long-time patient at Whole Body Health about an issue with her friend’s health. For the sake of anonymity let’s call my patient Dolores (that was my grandmother’s name) and her friend Tom. Dolores informed me that Tom will soon undergo a surgical procedure to relieve a bulging disc in his lower back, or lumbar spine.

For years Dolores has tried to encourage Tom to make lifestyle changes like coming to yoga, losing the extra weight, and changing his diet to stop consuming toxic food-like substances. She even tried to persuade him to become a patient at our office, having seen the fantastic results herself.

However, the years of poor food choices, little to no exercise, and no maintenance of his posture and spinal/neurological health finally wore Tom down – and Dolores had to watch it happen. This once vibrant, fun-loving and exciting person she knew had slowly degenerated and was now barely getting by.

Then, just a few months ago, Tom’s body could no longer take the stress of so many different assaults. The weakened ligaments of his disc gave in. As the liquid inside the disc pushed the once strong fibers outward toward the spinal canal, the disc began pressing on nearby nerves. He began experiencing a drastic increase in lower back pain, with pain and numbness running down his legs. This, at times, would be the worst pain he’d ever experienced.

Tom finally decided to seek care at numerous places. Injections were attempted, over-the-counter and prescription pain medications were taken, and he even received a short series of chiropractic adjustments at another nearby office. Nothing provided lasting relief. Following these few months of failed attempts to relieve the pressure and pain, surgery was prescribed.

Now I’m trying to get Dolores to bring her friend in so we can try to avoid what will ultimately be a side-effect-riddled surgery. When someone gets a spinal surgery, they have a 50% likelihood of needing a second surgery. When they get a second surgery, they have a 75% likelihood of eventually needing a third.

Tom’s story, sadly, is not unique. And many of these are entirely avoidable.

Not Everything Is A Nail

In one of many YouTube videos, Dr. Tim discusses why we use so many tools to address health in our office. Most practitioners only want to attack issues with their one prized tool, assuming that their tool is the best or the only way to fix something. “When your only tool is a hammer, everything is bound to look like a nail.”

“But,” he says, “we have to put the right key in the right lock to unlock our health,” which is why we don’t stop with just one service to help our patients improve. We provide many, and we stand behind that because with someone’s long term health, we don’t think it’s worth messing around.

How Decompression Therapy Can Help Tom

One of the tools that doesn’t get the publicity it deserves is decompression therapy. Most of you probably haven’t even heard of it, so I’ll explain.

Decompression therapy has become popular with chiropractors and physical therapists as an alternative to surgery. Essentially, decompression works under the same principle as an inversion table: A stretching force is applied to the spine, which pulls the vertebrae head-ward, away from one another.

This stretching creates a vacuum-like action within the discs of the spine, pulling fluid back in and reducing the bulge. However, the differences between a simple inversion table and a decompression therapy table are huge.

For one, the decompression table can customize the weight used to stretch the spine, while inversion tables cannot. This is a significant difference for thin patients who may not generate enough force to stretch, overweight patients who may generate too much, or patients with degeneration, ligament instability or other conditions.

The second difference is the length of time. Many of our patients receive treatments that last 10-15 minutes, which is just more than the maximum I would recommend someone use an inversion table. However, in certain cases decompression therapy can be used for as long as 30 or 40 minutes, more than triple the time of an inversion table.

Another difference of note is that inversion should not be used with people who suffer from dysautonomia (like POTS), orthostatic hypotension, vertigo, etc. Whereas decompression tables do not require anything more than a patient lying down as they would lie in bed.

Benefits of Decompression Therapy

Rehydrates and Heals the Discs

True blood flow and nourishment from our arteries to the bones of our spine diminishes as we reach puberty, stopping somewhere around age 15. The unfortunate part there is that blood flow is how we nourish the vast majority of our body. In the case of our vertebrae, after puberty nutrients must now come in through our discs, which attach to the bones of our spine.

When we walk around, sit or stand all day, we are pushing fluid out, and that doesn’t provide us any nourishment. So at night when we lie flat, our discs bring in new fluid and nutrients – that’s why we’re tallest in the mornings. Decompression therapy essentially cheats the system and rehydrates your discs twice in one day, bringing oxygen and fuel to injured tissue.1

Reduces Pressure on the Nerves

The main reason people like Tom who’ve injured their lower back have pain radiating down their legs is pressure on nerves. This can come from inflammation around the nerve, arthritis, rotation of vertebrae, and the discs pressing on nerves. For the sake of this post we’ll just discuss the disc.

When you picture the disc being stretched under decompression, picture a water balloon. If there’s an injury, that water balloon is compressed, often pushing out the path of least resistance toward the spinal canal (especially in the lower back).

Under decompression therapy, picture that compressed water balloon being gently stretched from the top and the bottom. This creates a more “thin” appearance to the water balloon/disc, which opens up space behind it for the nerve. Nerves can be extremely sensitive, which is why this reduction in pressure on the nerve from the disc can be incredibly relieving for patients.

Enables Long-Term Disc Repair

Because the spinal ligaments that surround discs are so delicate, it was thought for decades that when these ligaments were injured, they may not repair at all. This would be in the case of a moderate or large bulge, and definitely in a herniation where the fluid actually escapes from inside the disc.

It was also believed that as we age we lose height to our discs and they cannot be rehydrated to the same extent they once were. However, recent research is showing that decompression therapy can repair and rehydrate injured discs, improving our long-term spinal health.1

It’s Safer than Surgery

The highest quality research out there says three primary things about decompression therapy:

  • It’s as effective for pain relief as surgery when it comes to disc injuries and spinal stenosis.2
  • It has nowhere near the side effects of surgery.2
  • It is nowhere near as expensive as surgery.3 4

So if you were in horrible pain and I offered you two pills that could relieve it, and I and told you:

Pill A may work, but has a nearly 50% chance of you being in the same pain or worse, and will cost you thousands of dollars. Pill B has about the same odds of improvement with a less than 1% chance of your symptoms worsening and will cost you less than a third of Pill A.”

Which would you choose? I think the decision is rather obvious.

I just hope Tom takes the right pill.

Stay healthy my friends,

Dr. Bob Griesse, DC, CSCS

P.S.: If you want more information on Decompression Therapy, check out Dr. Tim’s video:

1 BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2010 Jul 8;11:155. doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-11-155.

2 Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Jan 29;(1):CD010264. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010264.pub2.

3 Spine J. 2010 Jun;10(6):463-8. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2010.02.005. Epub 2010 Apr 1.

4 Spine J. 2013 Nov;13(11):1434-7. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2013.03.015. Epub 2013 Apr 23.

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