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What is Spinal Traction?

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Updated April 30, 2014

Question: What is Spinal Traction?
Answer:

Traction is a modality (treatment activity) sometimes given by physical therapists, chiropractors and other spine specialists to their patients. The purpose of traction is to apply a force that draws two adjacent bones apart from each other in order to increase their shared joint space. Traction also stretches the soft tissue that surrounds the joint. Traction may be given manually, by means of a device or via positioning.

In the spine, the elongation provided by traction allows facet joints to slide, increases circulation and relieves pressure on the spinal cord, its blood vessels and nerve roots.

Traction is sometimes given to people with spinal stenosis, as it helps to make space around the compressed spinal cord. In any case, the improved circulation has an added, indirect benefit of decreasing chemicals in damaged tissues brought about by inflammation. The movement at the joints may also contribute to the decrease of nervous excitability, which is another source of pain.

Traction may be given continuously for up to 10 minutes at a time or intermittently for up to 15 minutes. When weights are used in providing the force, the practitioner will start light and, over time, move up to 15 pounds. This experience is meant to provide relaxation to the patient, rather than more tension.

Although many people can attest to the fact that traction on the spine feels good, a 2005 review of medical literature by the Cochrane Back Group found that, by itself, traction really isn't effective for lower back pain. After looking at 25 high-quality studies, which investigated a total of more than 1,000 traction patients, researchers concluded that if you are using traction as the only treatment, there's really no difference in results between it and placebo. For certain types of neck problems, though, the use of traction is alive and well in clinical settings, as a complement to other treatment measures.

Sources:
Kendall, F.P., McCreary, E., Provance, P.G, Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain. 4th Edition. Williams & Wilkins. 1993. Baltimore, MD.
Kinser, C., Colby, L.A., Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques. 4th Edition. F.A. Davis Company. Philadelphia, PA. 2002.
Clarke, J.A., van Tulder, M.W., Blomberg, S.E.I., deVet, H.C.W., van der Heijden, G.J.M.G., Bronfort, G., Bouter, L.M., Traction for low-back pain with or without sciatica. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 1. Art No: CD003010. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003010.pub4.
Braddock E, Greenlee J, Hammer RE, Johnson SF, Martello MJ, O'Connell MR, Rinzler R, Snider M, Swanson MR, Tain L, Walsh G. Manual medicine guidelines for musculoskeletal injuries. California: Academy for Chiropractic Education; 2007 Apr

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