Does Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression Work?


Non-Surgical Spinal DecompressionNon-Surgical Spinal Decompression t­­­­­­herapy is a non-invasive spinal treatment that uses a mechanical traction device to manage back and neck pain. Essentially, this method of treatment relies on a pulling technique, also known as traction, that acts on the spine to alleviate pressure without resorting to surgical measures.

As the number of people suffering from lower back pain, sciatic nerve pain and other pain disorders related to the spine continues to increase, a new treatment should come as a welcome advancement for people living with chronic pain, but does this particular treatment really live up to the success rates boasted by its proponents and devices’ manufacturers?

Understanding Pain

For numerous years, people have been using manual traction techniques to alleviate pain and lengthen the vertebrae by pulling on the muscles and joints with an external force. Only recently have mechanical versions been introduced claiming to be unique medical devices.

This non-invasive therapy aims to relieve pain caused by ailments such as herniated discs, facet syndrome and spinal stenosis. Pressure from these types of injuries contributes to pain by compressing nearby spinal nerves. For example, damaged discs wedged between the individual vertebra leak fluid that presses against the nerves. This compression often leads to sensations of pain, numbness and/or tingling. Lower back pain often develops in the lumbar spinal region of the vertebrae and can radiate to the legs through the sciatic nerve, while other pain is strictly localized to the affected vertebra and its surrounding region.

How it Works

What differentiates NSSD from manual traction treatments such as inversion therapy is the intermittent stretching action of the computer-operated, motorized traction device. During the more traditional inversion therapy, patients assume an upside down position with their heads tilted downward to temporarily relieve gravitational stress on the vertebrae and promote a natural stretching mechanism induced by gravity in the opposite direction. This type of treatment risks a bodily response of increased fluid and tension.

Rather than employing a continuous traction therapy to the spine, the machines used in NSSD are intended to accommodate the individual’s body as it vertically stretches each vertebra at different intervals, allotting time for breaks to prevent the body from defensively responding with increased tension and muscle spasms.

Proponents claim that both the stretching mechanism and the gradual rate at which it is applied by the computer create an environment that mimics a suction cup, alleviating inner pressure and allowing the pressure surrounding the discs to push nutrient-rich fluid back into the discs via a process resembling a vacuum. This replenishment purportedly heals damage to discs and joints gradually.

In theory, these processes seem intuitively therapeutic and promising, but their practical application leaves more to be desired.


Despite a few positive studies, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services concludes that high quality studies on the subject are limited. While it does not appear to be a particularly harmful treatment in general, it is not a revolutionary treatment that is significantly more effective than other traction therapies and actual decompression surgery.

No current study conclusively regards NSSD therapy as a more effective, unique treatment in comparison to other traction therapies, and those that do are associated with the companies that sell the products or are poorly designed and unreliable.

For instance, the CMMS highlights that a study advocating the DRS© system was headed by the very inventor of the device, accounting for its glaring biases. Similarly, one of the studies extolling the virtues of the DRK9000™ is co-authored by an employee of the device’s manufacturer, Axiom Worldwide. Both of these studies introduce conflicts of interest.

Canada’s Institute for Work and Health provides an assessment of various reviews and concludes that treatment claims are unfounded because of the current lack of reliable data.

These devices are capable of alleviating certain types of pain, albeit temporarily. Pain from bulging discs benefits from traction, but traction does not improve pain that is caused by the leaking fluid of herniated discs. Claims that promise a revolutionary panacea that actively heals damage are unsubstantiated.


Because of NSSD’s experimental status, most insurance companies are unwilling to contribute a substantial amount toward treatment or even pay at all.

With an average price of $200 per session and a dearth of insurance companies willing to cover the cost, the effectiveness of these treatments is a very pertinent topic to potential consumers forced to bear the entire sum of treatment.

The actual devices range from $20,000 to $125,000, a hefty burden that weighs down the pockets of the physical therapists, chiropractors and other health professionals who buy them. It’s no surprise that most websites advocating these therapies are backed by the ones who stand to gain the most from patients’ money.

Side Effects

Studies on the risks associated with these treatments are scarce. Despite the limited data, a few reports have indicated some potential risks.

During inversion therapy, the risks associated with the upside down position include increased blood pressure, lower heart rate and increased eye pressure.

The CMMS documents a man’s worsening of symptoms after an NSSD session.

Overall, patients need to examine the cost-benefit ratio of these procedures before deciding to undergo these treatments.


  • Does not require needles or anesthesia
  • Patients do not need to undergo invasive surgery
  • Comfortable setting
  • Less prone to the risks associated with invasive surgery
  • Allows the patient to be in control and lucid


  • Pricey
  • Not covered by most insurance companies
  • Claimed decompression mechanism is completely different from that of actual spinal decompression surgery
  • Still experimental and fairly new
  • Side effects not completely understood


Although Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression can reduce the pain associated with several spinal ailments, it has not been shown to be any more effective than more traditional treatments, and more research is needed to make a definitive decision. Those who feel they are missing out because of a lack of funds need not worry as they can find equally effective treatments elsewhere for a much lower a price.


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