First off, I would call it a condition.  The American Medical Association calls it degenerative lumbar disc disease, but that’s another blog post.  My first back injury was a result of doing light warm-up leg presses in the gym.  I knew it immediately, after going a little too deep with a repetition.  There was pain and reduced range of motion.  The doctor gave me ibuprofen and told me to rest it.  I’ve re-injured the area a few other times over the ensuing 20 years, all of them while lifting weights (heavy straight legged deadlifts once, light front squats another time).  So I eliminated regular squats, leg presses, and straight legged dead lifts, as well as dead lifts for years, doing other exercises to compensate.
Over the years, chiropractic adjustments helped heal the area after injury and keep my back feeling good the rest of the time. I had recurring sciatic nerve impingement at various times over 10 years, and prevented it from affecting me by stretching my hamstrings and glutes, along with chiropractic adjustments. If I didn’t stretch for more than a few days in a row, I would start to feel slight impingement of the nerve and that insidious dull ache that would get worse with each passing day. It was a constant reminder of the physical vulnerability and the wrong movement could cause another relapse. One time, a sneeze in the shower caused pressure on that nerve and a jolt of massive pain (I was instructed that bending my knees before sneezing will prevent that!), followed by a week of chiro adjustments, being extremely careful, and not being able to work out! All that changed just six months ago.

A chiropractor who happens to work out at my gym told me about a device he invented called Spinal Stretch. The device sounded interesting, so I visited his office, where he took an x-ray of my lower lumbar (free of charge… wow, nice guy!), and explained the x-ray (nothing new to me, that the L5-S1 joint shows a smaller than usual disc space, which is why the nerve gets impinged upon so easily). He also showed me literature that was pretty convincing – that sufficient spinal decompression can relieve disc compression issues, and even regenerate disc tissue. He then had me try his traction device after demonstrating it himself. I wanted to give it a try, so I paid him for the Spinal Stretch, and began to use it at home.

During that first week of use, Dr. Starr explained to me, at the gym, that the way I was stretching (each and every day, religiously) was compressing the fluid and nutrients from my spinal discs, and exacerbating my condition. I knew with certainty that those stretches were the only thing that had prevented my sciatic nerve from acting up over the last 10 years, but with reservation, I told David that I would refrain from doing them for a couple weeks… as long as I didn’t feel my sciatic nerve start to complain.

So I used his Spinal Stretch nearly every day for the first few months. No pain. No issues! Due to a hectic schedule (and being symptom free, of course), I’ve only used it about 5 times over the last few months. And still – no pain, no issues! I would have used it more if my back started acting up, but it just hasn’t. That fact is a good one, but I do plan to use it consistently over the next few months and then to take another x-ray to see if my L5-S1 disc space looks like it has regenerated. And if I had to use it every day, that would be OK too, but even better if I don’t have to!

So anyone who has a low back problem should give traction a try. But now I’ll explain the evidence in the literature that was so convincing to me.

The Science Behind Spinal Decompression

First off, there’s ample evidence that people have deterioration of the spinal structures, specifically, degeneration of the spinal lumbar discs, beginning in their second and third decades of life, and it worsens with age. Causes are genetic inheritance, age, inadequate hydration and nutrition to the discs, and loading (compression) history. That’s the case for athletes and non-athletes.

One thing that got research going strong in this area was the observation that astronauts in weightlessness gained up to two and a half inches in height during space flight, which decreased to zero after being on earth for 24 hours. What they realized was that the uncompressed spine in weightlessness was a result of the discs absorbing fluid (along with the all-important nutrients carried by that fluid). And that the spine in earth’s gravity is compressed quite a bit, comparatively. In fact, some astronauts complained of back pain in weightlessness, and they realized that it was due to the discs being extra full of fluid (think balloon that expands a little too much). They invented a compression suit to remedy the problem, and didn’t have the problem again.

Compression and decompression (they call it compression/distraction in the literature) pushes fluid out and diffuses fluid back into the discs, respectively. The key to healthy discs is to keep loading to a minimum, in general, and to decompress the spine on a regular basis, which results in fluid and nutrients diffusing into the discs. Simply laying down minimizes loading, but spinal compression (loading) is still present due to normal muscular tension.

The figure below shows spinal loading for various positions. Laying down face up, laying on your side, standing, bending at various angles, and sitting at various angles.

Note that the spine is more loaded when sitting than standing.

There are numerous ways to decompress the spine, but some of them seem silly. There is inversion (hanging from your feet), which results in blood pooling in the brain and eyes (potentially dangerous). There are various traction apparatuses that are big and bulky, used for experiment, mostly, and would probably be impractical for home use. There is floating in water. Water exercise is good due to the body being unloaded, but it’s not the end-all be-all for fitness or spinal decompression.

And then there is the Spinal Stretch. It weighs four pounds, fits in a small carrying bag that fits in a suitcase, and provides plenty of decompression force. I used it for three months, 30 minutes half the time, 20 minutes the other half, and read a book while I was laying there.

To come full circle, I have to tell you about the experiments with rabbits, mice, and rats. Various experiments and follow-ups for verification, control groups, etc… good, solid research protocol was followed. Loading of the spines were done over 28 days that resulted in moderate disc degeneration, followed by 28 days of decompression (distraction). They took measurements by removing the rabbit spines in one experiment, and measuring disc spacing and dead cell number before/after; another rabbit study measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as well as gene and protein expression levels.

The conclusion? That distraction results in disc rehydration, and that tissue recovery occurs on a biological, cellular, and a biomechanical level.

The study with mice and rats was done similarly, with the conclusion that mice and rat discs are a good mechanical model for the human disc. The correlations between lumbar spine properties and animal body weight was evidence that quadruped animal lumbar spines are a good model for bipedal human spines. Now that’s pretty interesting!

Bottom line? Too many people have low back issues that can be corrected without surgery. If you don’t have low back issues, you can prevent them by taking care of yourself, but decompression with a traction device is a simple, effective thing that you can do in a few minutes at home a few times a week. I thought I was going to have to live with my issue forever, and maybe eventually have surgery. Now I’d bet that I won’t need surgery, and that my one previously bad disc is probably going to be healthy for a long, long time.

Update on February 24, 2013

Over the past two and a half years, I’ve used my traction device (Spinal Stretch) a couple dozen times, a few days here, a few days there, with much time in between without it at all. The times I’ve used it is when I feel like my low back is a little “out of whack”, and using it once, twice, or three times in as many days puts me back to normal. Normal in my case is very strong, and doing free barbell squats again, straight legged deadlifts (with dumbbells only so far, with at most a 60 lb pair), and deadlifts, too!


A few interesting facts about back pain:

  • Low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the Global Burden of Disease 2010.
  • Back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work. In fact, back pain is the second most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office, outnumbered only by upper-respiratory infections.
  • One-half of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year.
  • Experts estimate that as much as 80% of the population will experience a back problem at some time in their lives.
  • Most cases of back pain are mechanical or non-organic—meaning they are not caused by serious conditions, such as inflammatory arthritis, infection, fracture or cancer.
  • Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on back pain—and that’s just for the more easily identified costs.

What Causes Back Pain?

The back is a complicated structure of bones, joints, ligaments and muscles. You can sprain ligaments, strain muscles, rupture disks, and irritate joints, all of which can lead to back pain. While sports injuries or accidents can cause back pain, sometimes the simplest of movements — for example, picking up a pencil from the floor — can have painful results. In addition, arthritis, poor posture, obesity, and psychological stress can cause or complicate back pain. Back pain can also directly result from disease of the internal organs, such as kidney stones, kidney infections, blood clots, or bone loss.

Tips to Prevent Back Pain

  • Maintain a healthy diet and weight.
  • Remain active—under the supervision of your doctor of chiropractic.
  • Avoid prolonged inactivity or bed rest.
  • Warm up or stretch before exercising or physical activities, such as gardening.
  • Maintain proper posture.
  • Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
  • Sleep on a mattress of medium firmness to minimize any curve in your spine.
  • Lift with your knees, keep the object close to your body, and do not twist when lifting.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking impairs blood flow, resulting in oxygen and nutrient deprivation to spinal tissues.
  • Work with your doctor of chiropractic to ensure that your computer workstation is ergonomically correct.


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