Low back and neck pain are some of the most common conditions we see at our outpatient physical therapy clinics. Pain related to these conditions may also travel into your arms, hands, legs, or feet if there is irritation of one or more of the nerves originating from your spinal cord. Experts estimate that as much as 80% of the population will experience a back problem at some point in their lives. Now, add in the up to 71% of the adult population that can recall experiencing an episode of neck pain or stiffness in their lifetime and it is more than likely that this article pertains to you (1).
If you suffer from any of these symptoms, you may have been recommended to try “traction” by your doctor or physical therapist. But what exactly is “spinal traction?” Could spinal traction benefit you?
A Brief Anatomy Lesson
Our low back (lumbar spine) is made up of five vertebrae with discs, muscles, and ligaments surrounding each vertebra. Similarly, our neck, or cervical spine, is made up of seven vertebrae. Nerves exit between each vertebrae through what are called the intervertebral foramen. Spinal traction is a conservative treatment that applies a longitudinal force to the spine. Think of traction as a gentle pull that aims to decompress the spine by temporarily creating more space in the intervertebral foramen or in simpler terms to stretch the muscles around the spine.
There are two main types of traction: manual and mechanical. Manual traction is provided by the physical therapist, where the therapist uses his or her hands to apply the traction force. Mechanical traction is commonly used when more force is needed and is delivered by a machine that applies the distraction force to your lumbar or cervical spine.
Is Spinal Traction for Me?
Some diagnoses that may benefit from traction include:
• Spinal stenosis
• Herniated discs
• Degenerative disc disease
• Neck pain or Low back pain
• Muscle spasms
It is important to understand that traction may not be indicated in all of those conditions. If you have been diagnosed with one (or more) of those conditions, your physical therapist or physician should carefully assess you to determine if spinal traction would be appropriate for you.
Traction + Exercise = A Beneficial Combination
While spinal traction may offer some pain relief for patients, traction is rarely used as the sole intervention for low back or neck pain. Recent research shows that mechanical traction combined with exercise leads to greater improvements than just traction or exercise alone (2). Traction can provide temporary relief; however for lasting results you must supplement the use of traction proper guided exercise (3).
Your physical therapist will prescribe the appropriate exercises to tackle your injury. The exercises will create a strong core to support the spine and increase the flexibility of the muscles and joints around the spine to make sure your injury does not return. Your physical therapist will also educate you on proper posture and body mechanics which are imperative for the health of your spine.
To sum it all up: traction is merely a tool in the treatment box if you suffer from neck or back pain. Nothing replaces a strong and stable core, flexible hips and chest, and proper body mechanics when it comes to a healthy, happy spine.
1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Back Pain Fact Sheet. December 2014.
2. Fritz, JM, Thackeray A, Brennan GP, Childs JD. Exercise only, exercise with mechanical traction, or exercise with over-door traction for patients with cervical radiculopathy, with or without consideration of status on a previously described subgrouping rule: a randomized clinical trial. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014 Feb;44(2):45-57. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2014.5065. Epub 2014 Jan 9.
3. APTA. PT in Motion News. Survey Results Reveal Traction Popular Among PTs Treating Neck Pain. Nov 9, 2016.