Spinal Decompression Vs Traction: What’s the Difference?


By Dr. Ravin Sodhi, D.C.

PUBLISHED ON January 31, 2024

Spinal decompression and traction are therapeutic techniques used in physical therapy and chiropractic care to address various spinal conditions. Spinal decompression aims to alleviate pressure on spinal discs and nerves by creating negative pressure within intervertebral discs, making it a preferred choice for disc pathology. This is achieved through controlled traction forces, often applied intermittently, contributing to a pumping effect within the disc. The primary objective is to retract or reposition bulging or herniated discs, relieving compression on nerves and promoting disc healing. While they share similarities, they differ in mechanism, goals, and applications, including overall goals, method of application, and patient positioning.

The spinal decompression machine has a computerized control system for precise customization based on the patient’s diagnosis. It utilizes a motorized system for controlled, cyclic traction forces on the spine. The force is alternately increased and released, creating negative pressure within the targeted spinal segment. This contributes to a vacuum effect, promoting the retraction of herniated material and facilitating nutrient and fluid movement into the disc space. In contrast, traction, applied with chairs or tables, can be longitudinal, lateral, or rotational, depending on therapeutic goals. Sessions last 10 to 30 minutes, with frequency varying based on factors such as patient condition and healthcare provider judgment.

Examining similarities, both techniques apply mechanical force to create space between vertebrae, relieving pressure on spinal discs and nerves. They address conditions like disc herniation, sciatica, and other spinal disorders caused by lifestyle factors such as excess body weight or physically demanding jobs. Both involve specialized equipment like decompression and traction tables, applying controlled forces to the spine. Sessions depend on condition severity, patient response, and healthcare provider assessment. A thorough patient assessment, including medical history, imaging studies, and a physical examination, precedes either treatment.

Distinct differences include the goal of spinal decompression, creating negative pressure for disc retraction, compared to traction, which stretches the spine to increase space between vertebrae. Spinal decompression is more targeted, whereas traction serves various purposes, including relieving muscle spasms and improving joint mobility. Spinal decompression involves intermittent or cyclic traction, creating a pumping effect, while traction can be static or intermittent, with continuous force during sessions. Patient positioning varies, with spinal decompression targeting specific spinal segments on a decompression table, while traction applies force in various directions on a traction table or chair.

In terms of control and precision, spinal decompression offers precise control for targeted treatment, unlike traction, which may provide less precise control and a more broadly distributed force. Spinal decompression is effective for disc-related issues, with research reporting improvements in pain, function, and satisfaction. Traction is versatile, addressing various spinal conditions, including muscle tightness and joint stiffness. The choice between techniques depends on the patient’s diagnosis, symptoms, and therapeutic goals, considering factors like suitability, safety, and treatment response. Ongoing research informs tailored treatment plans for each patient. The controlled nature of spinal decompression may enhance patient comfort compared to traction. Increased comfort and compliance positively impact overall therapeutic success.

At Active Life Wellness Center, our licensed practitioners offer personalized treatment and patient-centred care to help patients achieve their health and wellness goals. To schedule a consultation with chiropractors in Brampton, call us today at (905) 458-6677.

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