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What Are the Risks of Spinal Decompression?

Back pain is incredibly prevalent in the United States, with roughly 80 percent of adults seeking treatment for the condition at some point during their lifetimes. In some cases, such as disk problems, spinal stenosis, and spinal nerve root conditions, patients are often recommended and see relief from some form of spinal decompression. But what are the risks of spinal decompression?

There are two distinct ways to achieve spinal decompression: non-surgical and surgical. Each option presents its own unique risks and complications that healthcare practitioners and patients should know.

Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression

The first distinct type is non-surgical spinal decompression, also known as spinal decompression therapy. With the use of a spinal decompression table specifically built for the treatment, the patient’s spine is gently elongated, decreasing intervertebral pressure and promoting the healing of ruptured or herniated disks, reducing pain in worn joints, and more.

For most patients with spinal conditions that are treatable with non-surgical spinal decompression, the therapy is quite safe given that each treatment takes into account the patient's limitations for the duration of treatment. However, there are several cases and patient conditions for which non-surgical spinal decompression therapy is not recommended and could prove harmful.

  • Pregnant women: It is widely recommended that spinal decompression therapy not be used to treat spinal conditions during pregnancy. While sciatica is common during pregnancy, it is most frequently caused by the expanding womb pressing against the sciatic nerve rather than a herniated disc. In addition, though the event is highly unlikely, the repeated stretching movement created by a spinal decompression table presents a risk of causing uterine contractions.
  • Spinal fracture, tumor, or metal implants: Patients with spinal fractures, spinal tumors, or metal implants should not be considered for non-surgical spinal decompression, as the elongation of the spine may exacerbate these conditions, causing further damage.
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm: This condition is characterized by swelling of the aorta in the abdominal area, and bursting of the aneurysm can be life-threatening. As the process of elongating the spine during decompression therapy creates a change in pressure, it presents a risk for patients with AAA.
  • Advanced osteoporosis: While non-surgical spinal decompression treatments are very gentle, patients with advanced osteoporosis should not be considered for the therapy. Other treatments, such as hot/cold therapies, may be more appropriate.

It’s important to be aware that these are only the most common cases in which non-surgical spinal decompression may not be appropriate. Before getting treated with spinal decompression therapy, the healthcare professional prescribing or performing the treatment should always be aware of all relevant conditions to ensure patient safety. In most cases, the patient can be recommended another treatment or be referred to a different practice.

Surgical Spinal Decompression

The second method for achieving spinal decompression is surgical, with procedures including laminectomy, diskectomy, foraminectomy, corpectomy, and osteophyte removal. Ideally, surgical solutions to cervical or lumbar back pain are recommended as a last resort should other treatments fail to produce results.

All spinal decompression surgeries present risks common to all types of surgery. These include:

  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Blood clots
  • Adverse or allergic reaction to anesthesia

Depending on patient age and extent of the surgery, these risks can be more or less likely to occur.

There are also some risks and adverse effects specific to surgical spinal decompression:

  • Nerve or tissue damage: After the surgery, nerve damage or tissue damage at the site of the surgery may produce similar symptoms to nerve compression, including pain, tingling, or numbness.
  • Failed Back Syndrome (FBS): While terming it a ‘syndrome’ is something of a misnomer, FBS occurs when surgery is recommended for a patient for whose condition surgery was not an appropriate treatment. In some cases, additional surgeries are recommended for patients after the initial, failed surgery, but studies show that repeat surgery is less likely to succeed than the primary surgery, and have a higher risk of complications.
  • Cerebrospinal fluid leak: All types of spinal surgery, including spinal decompression, present a risk of dural sac tear or other causes of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leakage. In many cases, if not repaired during surgery, or if the leak occurs post-operation, the leak will heal on its own, but in rare instances extensive leakage may require additional surgery.
In addition to complications and risks of the operation itself, many patients are adversely affected by the cost of surgery as compared to other, non-surgical spinal decompression options. Patients may also face long, strenuous, or stressful recovery times after surgery.

Spinal decompression is one of the most effective treatments for certain spinal conditions, but depending on whether the treatment is surgical or not presents drastically different risks for the patient. Understanding the possible complications is critical for making an informed decision on whether to recommend or undergo a treatment. To learn more about the effectiveness of spinal decompression therapy, read our free resource below.

A Second Look at SDT

Despite a history of misconceptions, spinal decompression therapy has shown real results for patients. Is it time for a second look?

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