the benefits of spinal decompression

When we are young, our discs between each vertebra are juicy and packed full of water which means we float along through the day on a cushion of fluid.  As we advance in years, our discs lose fluid and we usually lose height. Our movements also become more jarring, and alas! More rickety.

The height loss is due to reduced concentrations of the magic proteoglycans substance inside the discs exerting weaker osmotic attraction on water to keep the discs fully hydrated and plumped up. 

High concentrations of proteoglycans keeps discs well hydrated

Sustained spinal loading dramatically reduces the synthesis rates of proteoglycans and we mainly load our spines through excessive hours of sitting. Sitting also forces fluid out of the discs, while at the same time making it harder to get fresh gulps back in. For this reason, thinner discs are much more common in the lumbar area, as we get older.

Reduced concentrations of proteoglycans is one of the first signs of disc degeneration. Over time, it can cause the disc at a single spinal level to become thinner. You can read in the section Developmental Spine Disorders that once a disc thins, problems become more widespread at that spinal level. One of the benefits of daily decompression is interrupting the negative effects of spinal loading. It is still not possible to say whether the benefits of spinal decompression can permanently restore the height of a degenerating disc.

Sitting on discs gradually chokes down proteoglycans manufacture and leaches discs dry. Both are background factors causing disc thinning

Each day, all of us lose approximately 20% of discal fluid through two sets of forces: the weighing down of gravity and muscular activity compressing the spine. This means we all go to bed approximately 2 centimetres shorter because of disc dehydration. There have been small studies carried out on footballers measured before and after the game where height loss could be restored with spinal decompression. 

Each disc loses about 2cm in height during the daylight (upright) hours

We lose more fluid from our lumbar spines when sitting because the intra-discal pressures are higher. And we sit all the time. Slumped forward sitting exerts the greatest compressive forces on the lumbar discs, which dehydrate more rapidly (quicker still if vibration is involved which explains why you get stiff driving). With compression squeezing out approximately 10% of discal fluid in the first 2 hours of sitting, lumbar decompression helps get the fluid back in.

Sitting stooped dehydrates the lumbar discs quicker

Tyrell et al, gave some early indication of the benefits of spinal decompression by showing that fluid lost through excessive spinal loading (holding 10 kilo bar bells) was recouped by lying in the supine position, on the back, with the legs bent at the knees, compared to standing. 

Spinal researchers also tell us we lose more fluid the spine in a bent (kyphotic) position than arched. Therefore a position of passive hyper-extension in supine is likely to facilitate disc rehydration. The easiest way to do this is by lying draped passively backwards over a yoga brick, or BackBlock.

Studies show more fluid is gained by bending the spine into an arched (lordotic) position than keeping it bent (kyphotic), as in sitting 

Patients visibly improve and subjectively say they feel better. Improvement is also cumulative

The effects of spinal decompression (traction) are different for acute and chronic conditions. In acute pain there is swelling of the joints with the muscles tightening to protect the back. They hold the spinal segments compressed as if caught in a low grade cramp. The relief from traction comes from gently stretching the muscles out of over-protective mode, which in turn helps the fluid collected around joints to escape.  

That said, spinal traction for acute conditions may antagonize the problem; it is tricky getting the decompression forces right and it’s possible to make the swelling – and the pain - worse.  Unless the poundage is very mild it also tends to increase the protective guarding of the muscles. 

But for chronic conditions the benefits of spinal decompression are Great

The outer disc wall is a very strong fibrous mesh.  It is the 'toughest' structure in the human body and tends to shorten and lose compliance if not regularly stretched.  Once the fibres shorten, you acquire a spinal segment that is locked out of movement and feels like a stiff and painful link in the spine. Back problems start this way.

Traction stretches the fantastically strong, multi-layered fibrous mesh of the disc walls thus helping the discs accommodate more fluid. Traction also prevents disc breakdown 

Pulling the spinal segments apart to stretch the discs has its obvious and less obvious advantages. Researchers Lotz et al. found that hanging mice by their tails made their discs less susceptible to breakdown.  For we humans, who spend far too much time on our butts, the same principles apply: decompressing the spine makes it less susceptible to breakdown. 

And here is the most important point: discs are water-filled sacks. Pulling them apart pulls fluid in. This fluid isn’t just water; it contains all the nutrients needed to keep the discs healthy.  So being able to suck and squirt a life-giving nutritional exchange through the discs not only helps prevent degeneration, it helps with the repair processes.  

but how should we achieve this
spinal traction?

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