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What's the Difference Between Traction and Spinal Decompression Therapy?

For many in the chiropractic field, there is often confusion on the difference between spinal traction therapy and spinal decompression therapy. The number one cause for this puzzlement is that most people, professionals and patients alike, don’t know that there even is a difference between the two.

In truth, traction therapy and spinal decompression look very similar. Misinformation in the community has lead to the long-held belief that spinal traction and spinal decompression are two names for the same therapy. However, the differences between the two are incredible. It is important for the key differences to be recognized by both practitioners and those who need treatments to stop misinformation being spread and bad techniques from being practiced.

Why Traction Was Used

Often, people are confused by the differences between traction and spinal decompression because the treatments themselves are similar, in theory. When a patient suffers from back pain, one way to alleviate pain, without surgery, is to gently pull on the spine. A traditional traction table is made using a winch system that pulls a patient’s spine in one direction. While this helps the spine by allowing injured disks to spread and can help reverse some of the effects of herniation, traction tables come with a major flaw.  

When the body recognizes that the spine is being pulled, it reacts by tightening to try and protect what it reads as an unnatural movement. Because a traction table uses a constant pull, it has no measure to defend against the tightening of the body, known as muscle guarding. This leads to spasms, and will undue the benefits that pulling on the spine was meant to offer in the first place.

Because traction therapies often lead to painful spasms and little long-term improvements of spinal pain, it has gained a bad reputation in chiropractic circles—and not without reason. And because traction and spinal decompression are often thought of as the same treatment, spinal decompression therapy is often written off based on the reputation of spinal traction. However, there are important differences between the two therapies, and spinal decompression is a marked advancement for non-surgical treatments.

Why Spinal Decompression Is An Improvement

Like a traction table, spinal decompression therapy helps alleviate spinal pain by gently pulling on the spine. The big difference comes in how the spinal decompression table  helps prevent the muscle guarding that traction causes. Decompression tables have built-in computer sensors and systems that can recognize when the body has reached a limit and is preparing to tighten as a response. When that limit is reached, the decompression table will stop pulling and allow the body to relax before stretching the spine again.

Decompression therapy can be used for a number of conditions:

  • Sciatica nerve pain in the legs

  • Herniated or bulging disks

  • Spinal nerve root conditions

  • Worn spinal joints.

For many people, spinal decompression therapy is a favorable alternative to an invasive surgery. Patients who have successful treatments with spinal decompression therapy are able to enjoy the aspects of life that they were missing out on while suffering from extreme back pain. Daily living becomes easier for patients, and because spinal decompression therapy doesn’t cause additional spasming during treatments, patients are more likely to want to return for necessary treatments.

Spinal decompression therapy addresses the same issues that traction attempts to fix, but does so in a way that the patient is protected against painful spasms and discomfort. Decompression comes with risks as well, but those risks are largely meant for people who are pregnant or have additional spinal conditions like tumors or fractures. The chances of having a spasm issue while undergoing decompression therapy is incredibly small, especially when compared to traction therapy.

Going Forward

Whether you are a patient looking into chiropractic treatments, or a professional looking into what equipment to purchase for your clinic, knowing the difference between traction and spinal decompression should be a foremost concern. A successful practice depends on having the right equipment to effectively treat spinal injuries without causing unnecessary, additional pain.

Due to the success of spinal decompression therapy over traction, some manufacturers of traction tables have redesigned them to appear like a spinal decompression table. Knowing the differences between traction and spinal decompression can help you determine if the table you use or are planning to purchase is the real deal— and help you ensure that the correct information is spread in the chiropractic community.

Still want more information? Click the link below to download our article on the effectiveness of spinal decompression therapy.

Measured Success

Download our article to read about the effectiveness of spinal decompression therapy in a real practice.

Learn More