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What is Spinal Decompression Therapy?

Content Updated on 01/28/2019

In both chiropractic settings and the broader medical world, spinal decompression therapy has been frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. Often conflated with claims of bad science, decompression therapy suffers from a bad reputation. Despite the bad press that has arisen from lack of information, spinal decompression therapy is an effective and relatively simple non-surgical treatment for the complicated causes of chronic back pain and other conditions. In this post, we’ll go over the basics of decompression therapy and how it can benefit you.

What is Spinal Decompression Therapy?

Spinal decompression therapy is a nonsurgical, non-pharmacological, and non-invasive treatment for the relief of back and leg pain. By using a spinal decompression table to intermittently stretch and relax a patient’s back, pressure that is usually placed on spinal discs is reversed, or decompressed, to promote the healing of a number of spinal conditions. For example, spinal decompression can be used to treat herniated discs by removing obstructions to the disc’s natural healing processes and pulling bulging material back into the disc.

The bad reputation spinal decompression therapy gets is often because it is confused with traction therapy, which can pull a patient's spine and cause pain due to inferior equipment and treatment. Unlike traction therapy, spinal decompression treatments can be tailored to a patient’s specific needs. Unlike surgical interventions for back pain, spinal decompression therapy is low-risk, and when performed correctly, treatment does not cause any discomfort to the patient.

What does a Session Look Like?

Before the treatment can even be considered for a patient, spinal decompression therapy first requires a spinal decompression table and a trained practitioner. Sessions take place in the practitioner’s office, and last from 30-45 minutes per session. Depending on the patient’s needs, a spinal decompression protocol may last for four to seven weeks, and the therapy may be used in conjunction with other treatments such as cold or heat therapy, electrical stimulation, and ultrasound.

Patients undergoing spinal decompression therapy lie clothed on a the motorized spinal decompression table. Different diagnoses and different tables mean varied position of the patient: for some, the patient lies supine, with their face up, and for others, they are positioned prone, or face down, on the table. In either case, a harness around the patient’s hips is attached to the lower half of the table, while the upper body remains stationary. The motorized table then moves the patient’s lower body according to a practitioner-controlled treatment programmed into an attached computer, providing gentle, continuous stretch and release on the patient’s spine.

With the correct tools and training, spinal decompression therapy should cause little to no discomfort during the treatment. With some devices, sudden changes in tension can cause muscle contraction, which can affect the patient’s comfort and the effectiveness of the treatment. When considering the practice of spinal decompression therapy, it’s critical to ensure that the tools you use are capable of delivering the desired results.

Who Can Benefit from Spinal Decompression Therapy?

Spinal decompression therapy has been used effectively to treat bulging or herniated discs and is especially effective in patients with chronic neck and back pain for whom other medical interventions and chiropractic, drug-based, or lifestyle treatments have failed to provide results. Other conditions for which spinal decompression has been leveraged to treat are:

  • Sciatica
  • Injured or diseased spinal nerve roots
  • Worn spinal joints
  • Compressed nerves

There are some patients who are not good candidates for spinal decompression therapy, including pregnant women, patients with artificial discs or other spinal implants, and patients with advanced osteoporosis.


Spinal decompression therapy is both a simple to understand and effective treatment for patients with back pain. Because it is a low risk and easy treatment, this therapy has become a favorite of healthcare practitioners and patients alike. Is it time you gave it a second look? Download our article by clicking below.

A Second Look at SDT

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