Chronic back pain can be very demoralizing and can disrupt your life in profound ways. Back pain is caused by herniated discs, sciatica, degenerative disc disease, pinched nerves, and a host of other back conditions. Patients concerned with the continual use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the pain, or are reluctant to take steroid injections or seek physical or chiropractic treatment, sometimes opt for traction treatment, also known as spinal decompression therapy.

Spinal Decompression Therapy

What does traction treatment involve, and how does it relieve pain?

Spinal decompression involves stretching the spine using a motorized device. In most cases, the patient lies fully clothed on a table equipped with special tools to stretch the spine, and with a computer which customizes the treatment to the patient’s specific needs. A harness is placed around the patient’s pelvis and another around the trunk.

A series of pulleys and slings are used to stretch the spine. This slow, gentle stretching takes pressure off compressed spinal discs, ligaments and nerves, and induces proper spinal alignment. Sometimes this decompression is done manually by the therapist who uses hands to stretch and push the muscles along the spine to create space between the disc and vertebrae. Manual spinal traction is more beneficial for patients with nominal spine compression.

Traction therapy relieves pain by allowing bulging or herniated disks to pull back, which takes the pressure off nerves and other parts of your spine and promotes the healing of the disks by enabling the access of water, oxygen and other nutrients into these areas.

What is the view of the medical profession on traction treatment?

Although traction therapy does provide back pain relief in many cases, and the fundamental theory of this treatment is generally accepted as valid, the question about the efficacy of this therapy continues to be debated.

There is a lack of solid, scientific evidence supporting decompression therapy as being efficacious. There have been some studies that concluded that decompression therapy is effective, but these do not include control groups or are ones that have some other flaws with their design, and are therefore not authoritative. Most recently, researchers at the Institute for Work and Health carried out a comprehensive review of the available research literature on the efficacy of traction therapy. They concluded that based on the evidence provided in this material, there was only “Moderate evidence that traction as a single treatment was no more effective than other treatments.”

Spinal decompression may not be for everyone – in some cases a condition is complicated and advanced, and would better benefit from other available treatments. Patients suffering from an acute back injury, osteoporosis or other musculoskeletal or spinal condition should not consider traction therapy.

Still, traction treatment does provide relief in some people, especially when it is combined with physical therapy and other forms of treatment for pain relief. To prolong the elongation of the spine and pain-free intervals, some patients choose to wear a brace after the treatment. Electrical stimulation (electric currents for muscle contraction) and ultrasound (the use of sound waves) are also used in conjunction with traction treatments to promote healing.


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