Does Weightlifting Compress Your Spine?
Spinal decompression may relieve pain and save your discs from all those years of heavy lifting.
By Guillermo Escalante, MBA, ATC, CSCS; Photography: Jason Breeze; Model: Lou Joseph, IFBB Pro
No doubt you’ve heard about the mountain of evidence that supports weight training, benefits that range from speeding up your metabolism via the increase of lean body mass to the prevention of osteoporosis. So overwhelming is the scientific literature that the medical profession now recommends incorporating resistance training as part of an overall fitness program as well as a therapeutic intervention for various diseases and orthopedic ailments. However, there are some risks that come along with it. Several studies performed over the years have investigated the incidence of weight-training injuries. Most of these studies demonstrate that the back is typically one of the more injured areas among bodybuilders.
The relative risk of sustaining a back injury during weight training suggests that maintaining a healthy back is crucial to your longevity. Dr. LeRoy Perry Jr., D.C., C.Ped., and president of the International Sportsmedicine Institute in West Los Angeles says, “There are basically two types of trauma to the back: 1) Macrotrauma, an injury that you can pinpoint and remember (i.e., a heavy deadlift that hurt your back); and 2) Microtrauma, which can stem from gravity as you age along with accumulative bad habits (i.e., poor posture from imbalanced muscles).” Dr. Perry states that either type of back trauma can result in compressive spinal instability, which can lead to severe back pain, disc bulge/herniation, nerve root compression and even degenerative arthritis.
The high incidence of back pain — among weight lifters and the general population — has for many years had the medical community search for ways to alleviate it. One of the most commonly used methods to treat back pain is spinal decompression. Although it can be performed invasively via surgery (i.e., microdisectomy, laminectomy), that’s usually a last-resort treatment. Your first attempt should be of a noninvasive nature via the use of a nonsurgical spinal decompression machine.
Spinal decompression describes the pressure relief on pinched nerves (or a specific nerve) of the spinal column and is typically used to treat conditions that result in back pain such as a disc bulge, disc herniation, sciatica, spinal stenosis and other types of back conditions. Nonsurgical spinal decompression is achieved through the use of a mechanical traction device (applied through either an onboard computer or a gravitational force with an active inverted movement) that controls the force and angle of distraction. Since the applied force and the angle of distraction can be altered, the body’s natural tendency to resist the external force is reduced and helps to allow for more significant spine decompression. Dr. Perry states that spine decompression helps to increase vertebral disc space, which decreases vascular and nerve pressure.
The computerized spinal decompression machines that are used primarily by healthcare professionals rely on passive decompression (where the machine does the stretching and the patient does nothing). The brand names of some of these machines include the VAX-D, Decompression Reduction Stabilization (DRS) System, Accu-SPINA System, DRX9000, and the SpineMED Decompression Table. These machines aren’t designed for your home because they cost upwards of $100,000 and the typical cost of each treatment is about $200 (not usually covered by insurance). Computerized spinal decompression typically works through a series of 15 one-minute alternating decompression and relaxation cycles with total treatment time of 20–30 minutes.
One gravitational spinal decompressor known as the Orthopod uses gravitational forces with active inverted movement to stretch both the extrinsic (more superficial) and intrinsic (deeper) muscles on one side of the body while contracting and strengthening the opposing musculature. The agonist/antagonist and stretch/strengthening can potentially help create core spinal stability in addition to providing spinal decompression. Additionally, the saddle-set design of the Orthopod enables the user to contract the adductor muscles while inverted, which may help to activate the abdominals more effectively. Gravitational spinal decompression treatments take anywhere from 2–10 minutes. Perry has put his own device on the market as well called Dr. Leroy Perry’s Spinal Decompressor (cost starts at $1495). There are other less-expensive home models available but it’s critical that you consult your physician on how to engage the machines correctly and frequency and duration of operation.
Although the verdict is still out on exactly how effective nonsurgical spinal decompression may be, the noninvasive nature of the procedure (if you’re suffering from back pain) makes it a viable treatment option. A study published in the Journal of Chiropractic and Osteopathy stated, “limited evidence is available to warrant the routine use of nonsurgical spinal decompression.” Another preliminary study that appeared in the American Journal of Pain Management reported, “the decompression system gave good to excellent relief in 86% of patients with a ruptured intervertebral disc.” Dr. Perry claims that he’s seen remarkable success with many world-class athletes who have used the gravitational decompression system, and by extension it could benefit bodybuilders who suffer from back pain as well.