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How Spinal Decompression Therapy Works

Published February 14, 2019
| Written By Allen Conrad, BS,DC,CSCS   | Medically Reviewed by Jonathan Buncke, DC

Many people suffer from debilitating back pain affecting many aspects of daily life. These individuals seek alternative therapies to avoid taking pain medication that only covers up the symptoms of back pain and herniated disc injuries. Instead of using drugs or epidural injections to mask the symptoms, there are innovative options like chiropractic spinal decompression therapy, which can provide non-surgical options for back pain.

Non-surgical options for back pain

Chiropractic care has been effective for over 200 years in the diagnosis and treatment of spinal conditions, including bulging and herniated discs. One of the more recent and innovative techniques in chiropractic care for treating these conditions is spinal decompression therapy. This innovative treatment allows pain relief to affected areas with less complicating factors than traditional surgical options.

What is Chiropractic Spinal Decompression Therapy?

Spinal Decompression Therapy is a technique used to reduce pressure on compressed discs in the spine. Spinal discs are composed of a jelly-like substances called collagen, which can move when pressured from an injury. When a disc becomes compressed, pressure on the disc can squeeze on the nerve causing the “jelly” to bulge out in different directions, or herniate, which can cause pain.

Why choose Spinal Decompression Therapy?

Back pain can affect your daily life, work, and everything in between. Many people are interested in non-surgical options for back pain due to the complications which can arise from surgery or injections. Chiropractic care can offer relief for back pain without the risks of drugs or surgery by offering alternatives to pain killers, which cover up symptoms and do not fix the problem. Stretching and decompressing the disc can relieve the irritated disc and allow the spinal region to move with less restriction.

What are the most common types of disc injuries?

A disc can move out of its original position when an injury occurs and depending how far the disc has moved, health care experts can classify the injury. Common types of disc movement include lateral or central disc conditions. Discs can move out into the lateral recess of the spinal column causing a left or right disc injury, commonly associated with flexion, extension, and rotation type injuries. Examples of this type include a golf swing, bending to pick up a package, or performing a new twisting type exercise at the gym.

Central disc injuries are usually a result of a flexion or flexion/extension head-on collision and are commonly associated without much rotation. Examples of injuries causing a central disc injury are a head-on football tackle or someone diving into a swimming pool and hitting their head on the bottom.

Showcasing the different stages of disc injury.

Disc injury symptoms

Signs and symptoms of disc injuries include:

  • Pain
  • Spasm
  • Referral pain 
  • Numbness/tingling 
  • Swelling
  • Weakness/shooting pain
  • Inability to sit/stand long periods
  • Trouble sleeping 

Onset of disc injuries?

Disc injuries can be acute, which is of recent onset or trauma. They can also be chronic, which is usually associated with other conditions like degenerative disc disease, whereas the discs have slowly worn away over time. These degenerating discs slowly increase the pressure on the disc from arthritis and tend to have more gradual signs and symptoms over time.

Examples of movements which can cause a disc injury include:

  • twisting
  • repetitive actions
  • slip and fall
  • auto accidents
  • whiplash
  • sports injuries causing rotations and hyperextension

How can spinal decompression therapy help?

Your chiropractor can perform an examination and diagnosis for your condition and order an MRI to determine the location and direction of the disc injury. This helps determine which direction and force to use to decompress the injured spinal region using a spinal decompression table. This type of traction table technique can allow stretching through spinal decompression along the long axis of the spine. During this technique, the chiropractor applies mild pressure at the specific spinal region which is compressed. This chiropractic technique allows the source of the pain and inflammation to be relieved allowing the affected disc and nerves to function properly again.

Phases of spinal decompression therapy

  • Phase 1 of spinal decompression therapy is commonly used along with electrical muscle stimulation and ice therapy to allow a reduction of pain, swelling, and spasm associated with the disc injury.

  • Phase 2 incorporates flexibility and balance board training to improve range of motion and core body proprioception. This helps the body prevent future flare ups.

  • Phase 3 incorporates resistance training exercises on a progressive basis to allow improved core strength and endurance.


Spinal decompression therapy is an effective method of improving back and spine pain associated with disc injuries. This innovative chiropractic technique allows non-surgical options for back pain. Consult your chiropractor to determine if spinal decompression therapy is right for you.

Updated: February 19, 2020

Information provided within this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Those seeking specific medical advice should consult his or her doctor or surgeon. If you need to consult with a specialist, you may be able find a health care provider in our Specialist Finder. SpineNation does not endorse treatments, procedures, products or physicians.

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Contributors and Experts

Dr. Allen Conrad, BS,DC,CSCS is a Doctor of Chiropractic and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).