The back is composed of 33 individual bones called vertebrae. Between each vertebra is a spongy cushion of cartilage called a disc. The disc is much like a shock absorber and helps prevent damage to the bones. With aging, blood supply to the discs decreases. The disc doesn't heal as well after an injury and can begin to break down or degenerate. The soft center of the disc can protrude through a hole in the tough outer covering and press on the spinal cord, causing pain and/or numbness.
Spinal decompression is a treatment that uses traction to relieve pressure in the spinal discs. This therapy helps to promote healing in the disc itself as it increases the flow of nutrients. When the pressure on the disc is decreased or relieved, it can often return to its normal position and stop the pain caused when it rubs on the spinal cord. Spinal decompression is typically used for conditions like a herniated or degenerated disc, spinal arthritis, narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis) or nerve root pressure.
A chiropractor uses a special motorized table to perform spinal decompression. The lower half of the table can be moved and adjusted. A harness is placed around the patient's hips and connected to the lower section of the table, near the feet. Patients may lie face up or down, depending on the problem. When the table is activated, the bottom section moves and slowly applies and releases traction to the spine. Patients usually report feeling the stretch but not pain.
Like all forms of medical treatment, spinal decompression may be more or less effective, depending on the medical problem and the individual patient. The theory behind this treatment is that the gentle traction encourages the disc to return to its normal position and increases the flow of nutrients into the disc, which helps it heal. The treatment is relatively new; this is a case where research lags behind practice.
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