If you have chronic back pain and other subsequent ailments, you know how disruptive to your life it can be. You probably can’t think of anything else except finding relief. But, to find real, lasting relief you must first find the cause.
One of the biggest causes of back pain is the pinching, or compression, of a nerve that extends from your spine to other areas of the body, which is typically the result of a spinal disc that is herniated or out of alignment with the vertebrae. Thus, spinal compression is also often the root source of arm or leg pain, tingling, and numbness. Many people turn to spinal decompression therapy -- either surgical or non-surgical -- to ease the pressure on their nerves. Here is what you’ll want to know to help you decide whether it might be right for you.
Non-surgical Spinal Decompression
Non-surgical spinal decompression, or “traction therapy,” works by targeting a specific area of the spine, gently repositioning and stretching it in order to release pressure on spinal discs and the affected nerve(s). This typically involves lying on a motorized traction table that monitors your bones and tissues while it works.
Supporters of this treatment will tell you that over time, this therapy can cause bulging or herniated disks to retract to their natural shape and position, taking pressure off the nerves and other parts of your spine. It may also promote the movement of water, oxygen, and nutrient-rich fluids into the discs so they can heal.
Each treatment lasts around 30 to 45 minutes. And, depending on the ailment, a patient may need more than 20 treatments over the course of several months to feel relief.
This form of non-surgical spinal decompression has been used by doctors and other providers an attempt to treat:
- Slipped, bulging or herniated discs.
- Degenerative disc disease
- Sciatica (pain, weakness, or tingling that extends through the buttock and/or leg.
- Posterior facet syndrome (worn spinal joints)
- Radiculopathy (injured or diseased spinal nerve roots)
Additional research will be needed to establish the effectiveness of this type of spinal decompression. Some claim that traction therapy has a significant patient satisfaction rate, but at this time there is little evidence to support it.
Surgical Spinal Decompression
Surgery is another option for treating various types of back pain, but is typically a last resort. If non-invasive measures fail to provide relief, a physician may suggest surgical spinal decompression for bulging or herniated disks, bony growths, or other spinal problems. The most common procedure used to treat back pain caused by nerve pressure is a discectomy.
A discectomy is the surgical removal of herniated or bulging disc that is pressing on a nerve root or the spinal cord. Many surgeons use a minimally invasive approach for this procedure, providing for fewer risks and a relatively faster recovery period. Fiber optics and x-ray monitoring are used to display images on a screen, allowing the surgeon to see what is compressing the nerve and aiding in removal of that material.
After the patient receives an anesthetic, the surgeon creates a small incision and inserts a tube. This tube allows the surgeon to perform the surgery with minimal damage to the surrounding muscles, which are moved aside rather than torn or cut. The optical and surgical instruments are inserted through this tube, and once in place, the surgeon removes the disc. Patients often feel immediate relief during the procedure as the pressure is minimized. When the discectomy is complete, the tube is gently removed, allowing the muscles to move back into place.
A minimally invasive discectomy is a relatively short surgery that takes 30 to 45 minutes, followed by recovery and a postoperative visit before getting clearance from the physician to return home. Physical therapy sessions can help to minimize the recuperation period.
As with any surgical procedure, there are risks. Some of the more common risks associated with spinal decompression surgery include:
- Blood clots
- Allergic reaction to anesthesia
- Nerve or tissue damage
Another risk is that the surgery may not satisfactorily reduce back pain. Therefore, patients experiencing chronic back pain should get several opinions from both surgical and non-surgical spinal decompression therapy providers.
Sara Thompson has published numerous articles on the topic of back pain and its various solutions. This article was written in collaboration with Dr. Todd Kuether, a neurosurgeon performing minimally invasive spinal procedures in Portland, Oregon.