When someone says ‘I need to decompress’ after a long day, they are probably talking about kicking off their shoes, relaxing, and maybe having a glass of wine. But for people with back pain, decompression may have a very different meaning: relief, so they can enjoy life’s daily activities again.
The Physiology of the Spine
Your backbone was designed to last a lifetime, but the complex system of your spine wasn’t designed to stand up to a sedentary lifestyle of slumping over a computer screen or a steering wheel. After long-term use, or trauma, the spinal discs – the gel-like cushions between your vertebrae – weaken and gradually degenerate, causing them to bulge outside the vertebrae. Pain in the mid to low back is the result; chronic back pain that many people simply live with, despite the impact it has on their quality of life.
As the discs further deteriorate, herniation can occur. The result is swelling and arthritis in the back as the vertebrae chafe against each other. These symptoms can result from years of stress, and/or trauma to the spine as the result of an accident or injury. It is so common that low back pain is said to be the second most common reason that Americans visit the doctor.
Who is a Candidate for Problems of the Spine?
By the time a person reaches their thirties, their spine has already gone through a significant amount of wear and tear. The aging process alone can cause back pain, stiffness and soreness, but there are some issues that make this worse:
- Weak muscles in your core
- Being overweight, especially in the upper body, which makes the lumbar (lowest) section of your spine work harder
- Calcium deficiency and resulting conditions like osteoporosis, which make the vertebrae more vulnerable.
Benefits of Spinal Decompression Therapy Exercises
In addition to back and neck pain, spinal decompression therapy has proven useful in treating other common, painful conditions of the spine:
- Sciatica (pain which extends down the leg via the sciatic nerve)
- Herniated discs
- Injured spinal nerve roots resulting in pain, numbness, tingling or weakness
- Worn spinal joints
Spinal decompression therapy exercises can reduce a patient’s reliance on painkillers, NSAIDs, steroid injections, and back surgery.
How do Spinal Decompression Exercises Work?
Proponents of spinal decompression treatment say that over time, the therapy may cause bulging or herniated discs to retract. That can take pressure off the nerves and compressed cartilage, and helps promote the movement of water, oxygen, and nutrients into the discs so they can heal.
Exercises for spinal decompression are basically designed to stretch the spine. Eventually, vertebrae return to their proper alignment in the spinal column. Some of the exercises strengthen the core muscles so they, rather than the spine, can do more of the heavy lifting. Spinal decompression exercises are therefore strategic, but not difficult. Virtually anyone can do them. Results improve with consistent repetition over time. The best time to begin these exercises is NOW.
Types of Spinal Decompression Exercises
There are many exercises that will provide relief to the spinal discs. They can be divided into three distinct types.
- Free standing: these exercises can be done at home with no equipment, yet they are simple and effective. Because they are also gentle, even people with healed fractures, osteoporosis or metal implants in the spine can do these exercises, or modify them.
- With equipment
- Clinic-based decompression sessions:
- Hanging from a bar by your arms – as you would to do chin-ups, but without the pulling up.
- Abdominal exercises to strengthen your core – before attempting sit-ups or crunches, first lie on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Using your abdominal muscles, pull in and tighten your belly button straight backwards toward your spine. Hold for a few seconds and relax. Do 3 sets of 10.
- Hugging the knees – this can be done even when the back is rigid with pain. Lie flat on your back with your knees pulled in to your chest, arms wrapped around your shins. Your feet should be together with knees wide. Rock gently from side to side.
- Rolling the spine – sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, knees slightly bent. Lean backwards so you are resting on your lumbar spine. Holding the backs of your knees, gently tip backwards and forwards on your lumbar spine.
- Yoga – a gentle yoga practice always works with your own body’s capabilities. Go into the poses with a sense of respect for your body and its limits.
- Rest – any campaign of spinal decompression therapy exercises must be followed by rest periods to let the spine recuperate and relax.
- Squat – whenever you can. It pulls open the base of the spine, and is the ancient way we should all be sitting.
- Bend naturally – even picking your socks off the floor can be beneficial exercise if you have a tight back. Don’t try to keep your back straight; suck your stomach muscles in and bend over naturally and smoothly.
- Exercise ball – lying across the ball on your stomach allows you to stretch your back. Rolling back and forth on the ball with hands extended out in front adds core strength and flexibility
- Yoga block – lie flat on the floor with knees bent. Place a yoga block underneath your sacrum and settle onto it comfortably. Then slowly slide each foot straight ahead and let your weight go. You will feel your lower body opening up. Now slowly reach the arms above your head and just lie draped over the block, letting gravity do the work of opening up your spine.
- Home traction devices like the Nubax use leverage, suspending and stretching the user’s body to safely relieve pain
- Other types of inversion table therapy such as the popular Teeter Hang-Ups system also use gravity to stretch the spine, though it is important to note that this equipment should only be used on a doctor’s recommendation and with someone else present. People with certain types of back problems, circulatory problems, high blood pressure or heart disease should avoid this type of therapy.
- Many back pain sufferers swear by the benefits of these sessions, where high-tech inversion tables allow for customized care that targets damaged discs and carefully calibrates and monitors the level of stretching so that sessions are pain-free and safe.
- Depending on the severity of the condition, these sessions may be preferable to at-home exercises.
If you are determined to work through back pain with self treatment through spinal decompression therapy exercises, tell your doctor, so he or she can develop a specific plan for you. Working through your pain this way requires discipline, but it is effective, drug-free, and has overall health benefits that can go far beyond alleviating your bad back.