Back pain treatment efforts include everything from medication use to control pain, inflammation and muscle spasm to the late night “miracle cures” that promise immediate pain relief.

One treatment for back pain often advertised by the chiropractic profession is spinal decompression. Spinal decompression, historically referred to as spinal traction, involves the separation of the vertebral bodies resulting in less pressure on the intervertebral disc. The theory behind spinal decompression is the uptake of fluid from the bony bodies above and below the disc, thus improving the disc’s nutrition and the overall function of the spine.

In this article we examine the credibility of the claims made by the device manufacturers and the practitioners offering spinal decompression services. As you will read, the claims made are bloated, to say the least.

Are Spinal Decompression Ads Credible?

In this article, Harriet Hall, MD, writing for Science-Based Medicine, challenges the claims made from chiropractors promoting spinal decompression therapy.

There was a full-page ad in my local paper today for Back in Action Spine and Health Centers, targeted at sufferers from almost any kind of chronic back pain. It started with “Are You Ready to Throw in the Towel and Just Live with Hurting So Bad?” It went on to make a number of claims:

  • Doctors can fix the problem.
  • Breakthrough medical technologies.
  • Treatments are FDA cleared.
  • Treatments are scientifically proven.
  • No side effects.
  • Best kept secrets for healing “bad backs.”
  • Corrects scoliosis.
  • Corrects compressed discs.
  • Several university studies at Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Duke have confirmed that these treatments work.
  • Medical researchers have reported these methods up to 89% effective.
  • Treatments work for back and neck pain, sciatica/numbness, herniated and/or bulging discs, degenerative disc disease (arthritis), spinal stenosis, facet syndromes, spondylolisthesis.
  • Their questionnaire can determine who will benefit – if you fit even one criterion like “does your back feel out of alignment?” or “do you have arthritis?” you should call right away.

The ad offers a “Free Qualifying Exam” but you “Must Not Wait” because appointments are limited and they can only honor this free offer for 3 weeks. To encourage you to call, they sweeten the pot with a FREE $49 gift bag.

Are you suspicious yet? You should be.

All the claims listed above are false. Ads like this are promoting a machine that promises nonsurgical spinal decompression (the DRX 9000 or a related device). These machines are not a breakthrough of any kind; they’re just a fancy technological gimmick for providing old-fashioned traction. The same traction that has been rejected by mainstream medicine because it does nothing to change the outcome and seldom even does anything to temporarily relieve symptoms. The FDA approval is a “grandfathered” 510(k) clearance that only says the new device is equivalent to older traction devices so it doesn’t require separate approval. The “doctors” are almost always chiropractors, and not identifying themselves as chiropractors is a direct violation of their own published ethics guidelines. Claims for effectiveness are based on junk science: case reports and uncontrolled, poor quality pilot studies usually funded by the manufacturer. There is NO acceptable evidence that these machines are effective, and a recent review article in the chiropractors’ own literature says as much. These treatments DO have side effects; they sometimes aggravate symptoms and can harm patients. They cannot “correct” ruptured discs and the FTC does not allow them to claim that they can.

Insurance and Medicare do not cover these treatments, and they usually end up costing the patient several thousand dollars out of pocket. They may provide temporary relief for a minority of patients, but the same results could be obtained far more cheaply by a physical therapist whose treatments are covered by insurance.

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Despite the lack of scientific evidence surrounding spinal decompression, we believe that used as a component of a comprehensive back pain treatment program, spinal decompression can provide some pain relief benefits.

Do you have additional questions about effective back pain treatment? Post your question in the comments section below and we’ll answer your question promptly.

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