Herniated disc sufferers have traditionally had the treatment options of medication, physical therapy, spinal injections, and/or surgery, and because of the limited effectiveness of these approaches, many simply have had to learn to live with the pain. But a new option is now available and while not appropriate or effective for every person with a herniated disc, it does represent a huge leap in effectiveness and safety in treating herniated discs.
Spinal decompression is a new form of spinal traction. Regular traction has been used for a number of years to treat herniated discs, unfortunately with poor results in many cases, and with symptom aggravation occurring in some cases. The problem with regular traction is that it activates the body’s muscle guarding response and can trigger muscle spasm, which produces pain and may even result in increased pressure on herniated discs.
Spinal decompression has solved these problems though. Although still technically traction machines, true spinal decompression systems pull very slowly and gradually in order to keep the muscles relaxed and avoid triggering spasm. In addition, the more advanced of the spinal decompression systems also have computer-controlled motors and have sensors to measure the body’s resistance to treatment. If the body’s muscles begin to contract and resist the treatment, the system will immediately reduce its pull and the body’s muscles will relax again. The most advanced of these systems can respond to what the body is doing in an amazing 1/17th of a second. Since the body’s reactions take place in approximately 1/5th of a second, these advanced spinal decompression systems can modify treatment before the muscles can spasm, allowing for comfortable herniated disc relief.
This ability to avoid the body’s muscle spasm response allows spinal decompression systems to dramatically lower the pressure within a herniated disc. In fact, disc pressure is actually dropped into the negative pressure range, creating a suction that pulls the bulging disc material back towards the center of the disc and away from sensitive nerves. An additional effect is that nutrients and fluid are pulled into the disc to stimulate disc healing. Over time and repeated treatments, the herniated disc material is pulled back in, and the healing of the disc provides stabilization of the outer wall of the disc to prevent further bulging.
The frequency and duration of spinal decompression treatment will vary depending on the age and condition of the patient, the severity of the herniated disc, and the number of herniated discs. Spinal decompression can be used in both the lumbar and cervical spine very effectively.
Statistically, spinal decompression with the more advanced machines, and with appropriate patient selection has a success rate of 80-90%, and of those who are successfully treated, the results hold up well long-term in most cases. Given the success rate and the fact that the most common side-effect is some temporary post-treatment muscle soreness, spinal decompression is often the best option in herniated disc treatment.
Unfortunately, there has been a tendency toward overly aggressive advertising and hype, and in some cases, inappropriate application of spinal decompression in recent years by some health care practitioners. This has led to unrealistic expectations by patients and actions by regulatory agencies on advertising claims, leading to a damaged reputation for spinal decompression. While spinal decompression does represent a major advance in the treatment of herniated discs, it is not a cure-all, it is not 100% effective, and it is not appropriate for every patient.
Spinal decompression, when used appropriately, does produce enough improvement and disc healing in the vast majority of cases to allow patients to resume normal lives and return to most activities (even playing golf or tennis and working in the yard), but it does not restore a herniated disc to 100% normal. No treatment can. Even the still-experimental disc replacement surgery does not restore the spine to a normal condition and future back problems following disc replacement are to be expected. Overwork, poor posture, or failure to use good bending and lifting techniques can set the stage for a recurrence of disc problems no matter how good the results of treatment are initially.
With appropriate patient selection and by giving patients realistic expectations, spinal decompression providers can supply a very safe and effective treatment option for those with a herniated disc.
Dr. George Best provides spinal decompression in the San Antonio, Texas area. For additional resources concerning herniated discs, sciatica, or other degenerative disc disease, please visit his herniated disc website.
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