My Experience with Spinal Decompression Therapy

My Experience with Spinal Decompression Therapy

I was a little concerned when the rather large spinal decompression therapy machine, that looked like the inside of a spaceship, was installed in our office in December of 2009. I was worried that I would not get enough use out of it to justify the amount of space it took up. Since it occupied one quarter of our exercise room, I did not want it to take away from our ability to teach our patients how to stretch, exercise, or how to use their gym ball.  I quickly learned how powerful of a tool it would be for those patients who did not respond to chiropractic, massage therapy, athletic therapy, physical therapy, acupuncture or other treatments for certain low back and neck conditions.

The best way to explain spinal decompression therapy is that it is an evolved form of traction.  Traction has been around for decades to treat patients for conditions like disc herniations and sciatica.  Basically, spinal decompression therapy is computerized traction that makes treatment more comfortable.  It also allows us to cycle the pulling between a minimum and maximum load.  There are many benefits to this cycling of loads for the discs, but for the individual patient it simply makes it more tolerable than traction.  In this article, I won’t get into the specifics of how the technology works or even the physiological effects because I want to talk about some of my experiences.

Most patients respond favourably to chiropractic or the other treatments (like Chiropractic Adjustments, Laser,  Orthotics or Athletic Therapy)we offer in our office. However, there are always patients who do not respond as expected.  In the past, when all other treatments fail, the last resort is surgery.  Even then, not all patients were candidates so it often leaves them in limbo with severe and sometimes debilitating symptoms.  It was frustrating for me, so that is why I began down this path.  It was nice to finally have another tool to try and help these individuals.  I feel like I need to share some of my experiences because it can be such a powerful tool for certain people who are truly suffering.  I’ve had the opportunity to help some of the ‘worst of the worst’ conditions that rarely avoid a surgical attempt and fixing the problem.

To give some perspective of what I’m trying to say, I’d like to discuss one case.  He is a forty year old man, who was suffering from severe low back pain with shooting leg pain that went all the way down to the bottom of his foot, with numbness following a similar pathway. He was experiencing such significant weakness in his left lower leg and foot that he tripped frequently and had difficulty going up and down stairs.  More importantly he was not able to do the activities that mattered in his life, including playing with his children and walking his dog.  He kept in fairly good spirits but I could tell that he was having a really tough time.  He had been suffering for three years and his strong resolve seemed to be breaking.  He was scheduled for surgery in four months, so he wanted to try out spinal decompression therapy before then.  His MRI report showed a large disc herniation (for more on disc herniations, check out our blog post) that was likely putting pressure on the nerve that went down his leg. He showed no contraindications to this treatment during the physical exam, so we got started.  Each treatment visit begins with heat to relax the muscles, then proceeds to thirty minutes on the machine, then ice to cool down any inflammation we may have stirred up (for more information on when to use heat or ice check out this post).  The first three treatments were very frustrating.  He was comfortable before and after treatment, but there were little signs of improvement.  Knowing this can be normal for any manual therapy, we continued.  Following the next visit, we started getting a glimmer of hope. He said he felt like he wasn’t tripping as much.  I verified this by doing some muscle testing but told him not to get excited as it might be temporary.  As we continued, he got stronger and stronger.  By the fifth visit he started to feel like his numbness was changing to more of a ‘pins and needles’ feeling and did not go as far down his leg.  By the eighth visit re-evaluation he had full strength and only mild tingling in his calf.  His severe low back pain was also becoming less intense and was more specific in location.  By the thirteenth visit, his leg symptoms had vanished and his low back pain was much more tolerable.  We decided to discontinue decompression therapy and begin a slow road back to full function.  Stretches and exercises were gradually introduced to build up his mobility and strength.  A core strengthening and stability program was introduced soon after to rebuild and improve his ability to resist re-injury.  The low back pain eventually faded to a background ache and he is still very cautious, but he was overjoyed that he was able to return to his life and avoid surgery.  At his six month follow up appointment he has only improved further.

This case was not the only success, but not every case was successful.  Because of his condition, he was the perfect candidate. There was a wide variety of neck and low back conditions that I treated. Some responded quicker and others took more time to show as much change.  Some others did not respond.  The human body is complex.  There can be multiple overlapping spinal conditions and non-spinal diseases that can prevent this type of success story.  Occasionally, just like with other therapies, we have no idea why some patients don’t respond.  What I found by introducing this therapy, is that I now have one more tool to try and help people that previously I would not have been able to.  I look forward to these future success stories.


Dr. Chris Enns, B.Sc., D.C. has been a chiropractor in Winnipeg, Manitoba since 2005.  He is the owner of Balance Chiropractic and Wellness Centre, located at 121 St. Anne’s Rd in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Services include: chiropractic, massage therapy, athletic therapy, orthotics, spinal decompression therapy, x-ray services, and health and fitness consulting.


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