Can Spinal Decompression Alleviate Back and Neck Pain?

Photo courtesy of Jess James

Can Spinal Decompression Alleviate Back and Neck Pain?

Can Spinal Decompression
Alleviate Back and Neck Pain?

It’s been estimated that more than 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some time in their lives. It’s also estimated that this costs the US economy over $100 billion annually. (Decreased wages and productivity account for two thirds of that staggering figure.)

A steaming-hot bath, an acupuncture session, or a massage might help alleviate back pain temporarily. But according to chiropractor LeRoy Perry the key to diminishing pain lies in spinal decompression. Spinal compression, Perry explains, is when the nerves and vertebrae in your spinal cord become squeezed or pushed together. Which can lead to intense neck and back pain. In Perry’s experience, spinal compression may be caused in part by too many hours at a desk or looking at a phone, by poor posture, by an injury, by wearing high heels, or by a host of other conditions.

At his LA office, the International Sportsmedicine Institute, Perry works with patients to release pressure on the spinal cord. (Fun fact: He was the first chiropractor to serve as an Olympic team doctor in 1988; he’s worked with both athletes and average Joes throughout his career.) Perry has developed numerous devices, like the Spinal Decompressor, and he uses targeted exercises—some of which are done in a therapeutic pool—to offer patients some much-needed relief.

A Q&A with LeRoy Perry, DC

What are some of the most common culprits of back pain?

Compression, compression, and compression. Gravity compresses our bodies from birth to the grave. Certain bad habits can exacerbate spinal compression, such as poor posture and improper foot alignment and gait. Compression can lead to two common types of spinal trauma:

  • Macrotrauma: A major, traumatic injury. It is an injury we remember, such as a bone fracture or joint dislocation that is usually a result of a sudden, single event.

  • Microtrauma: The result of cumulative compression, or a series of small injuries sustained over time. This can relate to bad habits, such as sitting in a slumped, lazy posture; sleeping on your stomach with your head twisted; or improper gait.

In both macro- and microtrauma cases, the disc, nerve roots, and blood vessel—which are all found between the vertebrae—become compressed. This may lead to a loss of circulation, loss of oxygenation, and loss of nerve supply to wherever that particular nerve or blood vessel goes. It can affect our organs and muscles.

Symptoms of spinal compression often include sharp stabbing or dull and lingering pain, a loss of feeling or numbness, loss of balance, and loss of coordination. Neck compression can also lead to a loss of circulation to the brain, otherwise known as “brain fog.” People also often experience vision and hearing problems, difficulty recalling, and loss of cognition.

Back pain can also be caused by muscle imbalances resulting in scoliosis—a curvature of the spine—the result of congenital, acquired, or functional problems, such as supination (an outward rotation of the foot), pronation (an inward rotation of the foot), flat feet, or high arches. Any of these conditions can alter a person’s gait in a harmful way. More often than not, people who walk behind their center of gravity—with their heel hitting first in front of the knee rather than with their heel hitting the ground slightly more aligned with the knee—become what we call pullers. This can cause them to overuse their quadriceps (front thigh muscle) and iliopsoas (inner spine muscle that aids in flexing the hip and stabilizing the spine), resulting in compression of their spine.

Another leading cause of back pain—which I see frequently in children and adults—is tech neck: a stiff or painful neck, often resulting from strain on the neck from facing downward at a computer or phone, for extended periods of time. Today, children are using cell phones, laptops, tablets, and gaming devices more than ever before. Adults are using computers more often, as well, and most of the time, they’re incorrectly ergonomically positioned. This can lead to headaches, eye strain, and tight necks. When moving your head up and down, notice the weight of your head on your neck. On average, our heads can weigh anywhere from ten to twelve pounds. When faced downward at a forty-five-degree angle, your neck could be carrying almost fifty pounds of weight. This can cause fatigue, stress in your neck, and decreased circulation to your brain. Those suffering from neck and upper body instability and pain (including pain that runs from the neck down through the shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, and fingers) also often find it difficult to turn a doorknob or pick up an object. It can affect the body in numerous ways.

What are some effective ways to treat back pain?

Treating back pain requires understanding the mechanical cause of the back pain and correcting it, be it poor posture, poor gait, or spinal compression. For those with upper shoulder and neck pain and those who have improper posture, we focus on correcting their alignment.

Tips for Good Posture:

  • Keep your ears straight up over your shoulders. Your shoulders should be over your hips whether you are standing or sitting.

  • In a sitting position, your knees should both be bent at ninety degrees with both of your feet resting flat on the floor.

  • Unless you have circulatory problems, if you cross your legs, make sure one knee is resting on top of the other, rather than having the top leg bent at the knee with the ankle resting on the bottom knee. This position causes compression of the sacroiliac joints and lumbar spine, which can eventually contribute to spinal degeneration and other disorders, like arthritis, sciatica, and other compression disorders.

Treating your compression may involve treating an arch or your gait. If so, propulsive orthotics may be necessary to stabilize and correct your gait. We focus on educating our patients on how to do a proper falling step (propulsion), which entails planting the front foot under the knee while pushing off the back foot. In walking, the last phase of gait is called propulsion. A falling step cannot be learned by walking on a treadmill but can easily be learned by walking on an elliptical or walking on the beach in soft sand—not where the water and sand meet. Wet sand is hard on an angle and unforgiving.

Overall, when treating a compressed spine, therapy includes decompressing the spine in all areas: cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. There are different self-help techniques we have invented at the International Sportscience Institute in Los Angeles that work well to decompress the spine, and they can be done on both dry land and in the pool. I recommend using the home cervical traction Spinal Decompressor dry-land exercises twice a day for two to three minutes.

In all types of spinal compression, we have found hydrokinetic spinal decompression therapy in the pool, use of the Spinal Decompressor twice a day for two to three minutes, and spinal decompression exercises to be very helpful.

Can you talk about the Spinal Decompressor and how you developed it?

The first device I developed in the late ’70s was called the Orthopod. It was originally developed by an individual who brought it to me looking for help on how to best use it and instruct others on its use and benefits. I bought the rights and continued to develop it, and it later turned into the Invertabod in the ’80s.

I went on to develop the Spinal Decompressor for US military doctors who had used my Invertabod and wanted a self-help unit to assist our soldiers and military personal. It was vertically adjustable from five feet to six feet six inches, with variable angles from ninety, to sixty-five, to forty degrees, to ensure maximum calf, hamstring, buttock, and lower back stretch while doing inverted exercises. It also worked to strengthen the opposite muscles, such as inner thighs, quadriceps (front of the thigh), and lower abdominal musculature. This creates spinal stability, while strengthening the muscles 360 degrees around the spine. As you stretch one side of the body, the opposite side is being strengthened, therefore ensuring balance and coordination and enhancing the function of the body. It can be used by both athletes and nonathletes alike.

Whom do you recommend the Decompressor for? Are there some cases in which you would advise against it?

Because we are all affected by gravity, almost everyone can benefit from using the Spinal Decompressor. I suggest using it for two to three minutes, twice a day, to decompress the spine and increase circulation, oxygenation, and nerve supply. However, we warn against using the Spinal Decompressor or any other exercise device without first getting permission from your doctor. If you have glaucoma, a heart condition, high blood pressure, stroke, or any other health condition, you should not use the Spinal Decompressor.

Is it intended to be used for a short period of time or longer term? How do you use it?

Gravity and spinal compression are not going away. Use the Spinal Decompressor twice a day for two to three minutes, starting with an active stretching exercise called cradling. This involves a forward-and-backward rocking motion; while the hands grip the bottom handles on the front legs, the forearms remain flat against the front legs. [Editor’s note: For a visual, see Perry’s website.] This rocking motion is a perfect warm-up and cooldown, as it’s stretching the quadriceps, hamstrings, buttock, and lower back musculature.

The saddle-seat design has an adductor (inner thigh) pad, which allows the user to squeeze their thighs together, activating the adductor musculature (inner thigh muscles) and the lower abdominal muscles. This helps strengthen those muscles, while reducing pressure on the back and spine, which helps build 360-degree spinal stability—strengthening the musculature around the spine.

After cradling, I recommend free hanging for twenty seconds by relaxing your body with your arms crossed across your chest or hands behind your head. While free hanging, it’s important to remember to try to relax all of your muscles, breathe through the nose, and let your body learn to elongate and decompress.

Remain inverted for the next active exercise: the abdominal curl. Placing emphasis on squeezing the inner thighs together, put your hands on your buttocks and actively curl your trunk up by bringing your nose upward toward your knees. Complete this three times, then free hang again for twenty seconds while again breathing through your nose.

A few other exercises you can do:

  • Rotary trunk twist: This is a beneficial exercise for people with tight backs as well as for athletes as a warm-up and post-exercise. If spinal compression is determined to be the cause of a short leg (your doctor will need to determine your leg length discrepancy and correct it with a sole lift in your shoes depending on the amount of discrepancy) or some other muscle imbalance, often a chiropractor or osteopath will want to manipulate your lower back and pelvis. The rotary trunk twist can alleviate this compression and the need for manipulation as you perform your own inverted twisting motion. You do so by placing your right hand across your body and holding on to the front leg below the hinge. With your left hand holding between the bottom and top hand grips, you twist your body comfortably as much as you can while your head and neck remain relaxed. Turn and repeat this exercise in the opposite direction, gradually trying to stretch a little more each time. Do this exercise three times each way, first in one direction, then in the other. Follow by free hanging for twenty seconds, breathing through the nose. Allow your body to learn to elongate and decompress.

  • Advanced spinal stretch: Reach your hands as far forward as possible, grabbing on to the back legs of the frame, pulling your body as much as possible. Remember to take deep breaths and exhale slowly during this stretch. In yoga, this exercise is known as the rabbit pose. Free hang again for twenty seconds, breathing through the nose. Allow your body to learn to elongate and decompress.

How have your patients responded?

I’ve observed greater productivity, decreased pain, increased range of motion of the spine, greater overall strength, and improved ability to ergonomically stand, walk, sit-stand, climb stairs, and get in and out of a car without debilitating pain and discomfort. It has been noted that as patients’ pain decreases and mobility improves, their well-being and motivation also improve.

How widely available is the device?

The Spinal Decompressor is available at our facility in Los Angeles and online. There are two versions of it: a military one and a consumer model. The military version is much heavier, while the consumer model is lighter and has fold-up legs for easy transportation. Both models perform the same function of decompressing and strengthening the spine. The consumer model is often used in homes, gyms, offices, and on athletic fields before, during, and after athletic competition.

What are some of the benefits of working out in the water?

A few benefits include increased circulation, increased muscle balance, and improved coordination. This is so long as the patient is not touching or hitting the floor of the pool during the exercise. Water therapy is beneficial for patients of all ages. For those with spinal compression problems, such as arthritis, sciatica, or degenerative disc disease, hydrokinetic spinal decompression therapy is the most effective vertical self-help form of pool therapy. Swimming elementary backstroke is especially helpful in strengthening the upper and mid-back. It also helps those who have or are developing a caved posture, otherwise known as kyphosis. Breaststroke can be problematic for those with bad knees and hips, and therefore should be avoided. For those suffering from back compression issues, butterfly should be avoided, as it can aggravate the lower back.

What can we do to avoid back issues?

Create stability around the spine, and place an emphasis on the inner thighs and lower abdominal strength. Learn to have a good gait and sit, sleep, run, and climb in a biomechanically correct way.

When lifting heavy objects, make sure you do not bend over from your waist, but rather bend your knees, using your thighs to do the lifting. If picking up a baby from a crib, lower the side guard and bring the baby to you rather than leaning over, creating stress on your lower back. When lifting, perform a slight pelvic tilt and breathe—this will reduce pressure on your lower back.

Your water intake is also very important. It’s vital to keep your body well hydrated to maintain flexibility. The older we get, the more hydration our bodies require. From an Ayurvedic point of view, as we get older, we become more vata—dried out and brittle. So drinking enough water—preferably warm—daily is critical. It’s also important not to drink cold water with meals since it can slow down your metabolism.

LeRoy Perry, DC, is a chiropractor and an innovator of sports science therapies. He is a cofounder and the president of the Foundation for Athletic Research and Education, a nonprofit dedicated to helping individuals improve the quality of their health and lives. He was the first chiropractor to serve as an official Olympic Team doctor and did so five times. He has invented numerous therapies and devices to help alleviate back pain, including the Spinal Decompressor, hydrokinetic spinal decompression therapy, and the cervical decompression system.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.