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How Does Spinal Decompression Work?

Non-surgical spinal decompression, also known as spinal decompression therapy or SDT, is used by physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals to treat many of the conditions that cause pain in the cervical and lumbar spine. But what is spinal decompression? How does it work? What does a treatment do to the body, and what does it look like to practitioners and to patients? Let’s take a closer look:

The Effect on the Spine

During a spinal decompression therapy treatment, the patient is set up on a machine that pulls and relaxes on a targeted area of the back. The gentle expansion of the spine decompresses the discs between each vertebra by creating negative pressure within the disc. This pulls ruptured or herniated disc material back inside of the disc, as well as fluids and nutrients that promote accelerated healing.

Disc problems are often the underlying cause of common back conditions such as sciatica and nerve compression in other areas of the spine, which can be resistant to treatment. Non-surgical spinal decompression is therefore extremely valuable in treating chronic back pain due to its ability to effectively treat the source of the condition and its low risk in comparison to invasive and drug-based treatments.


Spinal decompression therapy is often associated with spinal traction, another treatment that pulls on the spine but without stopping which can cause pain to patients. While there are similarities between the treatments, the technology behind decompression therapy sets it apart and gives it distinct advantages over both manual and mechanical traction.

Spinal decompression tables are equipped with computerized controls and mechanisms, including sensors that measure resistance in the patient’s body during treatment. This helps to prevent guarding, or muscle tensing and contractions, that can actually exacerbate back pain, rather than relieving it.

There are several different types of decompression tables. A few key differences are:

  • Patient Position: Some decompression tables position the patient in a supine position, others prone. Positioning may affect patient comfort as well as the effectiveness of the treatment and the ability to target certain areas of the spine.
  • Pull Source: A number of decompression tables use cable-based systems, similar to some traction tables, while others use a mechanized table structure to gently decompress the spine.

To learn more about spinal decompression tables, take a look at our in-depth information page, What is a Spinal Decompression Table?

Treatment Protocol

One of the reasons spinal decompression therapy is so effective is its adaptability to each patient. Depending on the condition being treated, age, health, pain levels, and other factors, a doctor or other healthcare professional administering non-surgical spinal decompression can tailor the treatment to minimize discomfort and work towards lasting healing. The magnitude of the pulling force, duration of the treatment, and targeted area can all be changed to provide optimal outcomes for each patient.

Because the treatment relies on gradually and gently decompressing intervertebral discs, patients often begin to experience results such as pain reduction and increased mobility only after several visits, though practitioners have reported shorter-term results, especially for acute conditions. In addition, after completing a targeted treatment protocol, patients may require follow-up treatments for pain management.

Though it’s a relatively new treatment, non-surgical spinal decompression has proven its value through research and real-world results. The treatment marries extensive knowledge of the human body and spinal ailments and innovative medical technology to address hard-to-treat conditions; and that, in a nutshell, is how spinal decompression therapy works. To learn more, download our article on SDT by Dr. Tim Burkhart below:

A Second Look

Chiropractic treatments like spinal decompression therapy are evidence-based with proven results. Take another look at SDT with our free download.

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