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Decompression Therapy vs. Traction for Lower Back and Neck Pain

Have you heard the terms Traction and Decompression therapy used by medical personnel and wondered about the difference between the two? Physical Therapists and Chiropractors frequency use the terms Decompression therapy and Traction to describe treatments that are utilized for patients suffering with pain and limited function due to lower back and neck conditions. For patients, both the definition and purpose of these terms can be confusing. The good news is both terms can be used almost interchangeably.

Traction is defined as the act of pulling or a state of being pulled. Decompression, on the other hand, is defined as the act of relieving pressure. Although, these two definitions differ, the methods used to administer decompression and traction therapy and the purpose of each treatment, which will be discussed later, are virtually identical. In essence, the purpose of each treatment is to alleviate pain by relieving pressure and improve mobility of either nerve structures, joints of the spine and/or muscle. Each method utilizes a sophisticated table and mechanical device to apply a traction or decompressive force which is sometimes augmented by the patient performing activities while on the table.
Traction is used by physical therapists to decompress these structures and chiropractors use decompression therapy, a form of traction, to achieve the same result. Traction, the description used by most physical therapists has been utilized for centuries in one form or another by the Chinese and early Romans as a treatment for low back and neck pain. Some of it’s many uses include; to relieve nerve impingement due to disc herniation or bony compromise, to improve joint mobility of the spinal facet joints, to alleviate muscle spasm caused by injury, or to decompress arthritic joints due to degenerative disc disease or osteoarthritis.

Various theories exist regarding the therapeutic basis for why either type of treatment produces benefit to any patient. Some of the most widely accepted theories include; separation of the vertebral bodies to alleviate stress on the disc and promote healing, enlargement of the intervertebral foramen to decompress nerve structures, restoration of the normal gliding of the facet joints which allow movement of the spine, improved ligamentous mobility, and stimulations of receptors that allows muscles that are in spasm to relax.

Certain patients are not candidates for traction or decompression therapy due to associated diagnoses such as tumor or infection, vascular compromise, acute injury/spasm, Osteoporosis (due to the weakened bone structure and the stress applied during traction), pregnant women, and hiatus hernia.

According to Bucky Whiteman at Progressive Physical Therapy the best treatment of back and neck pain includes a thorough evaluation along with a specific treatment plan that may include traction therapy (if indicated), modalities to decrease inflammation and promote healing and a comprehensive exercise program that is specific to each patient’s particular condition. The therapists at Progressive Physical Therapy have also found that combining traction therapy and exercise in the pool environment is often tolerated better than traditional traction treatments. These treatments in combination with close communication with each patient’s family or referring physician can produce very good results.

For more information about the benefits of physical or occupational therapy contact Progressive Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Clinic at 301-729-3485.

Submitted by; Bucky Whiteman, MBAPT, Progressive Physical Therapy

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