Lumbar Traction Offers No Benefit for Back Pain

Does Traction Really Work for Low Back Pain?

Photo of a chiropractor decompressing a woman's spine.
Does lumbar traction really work?. Microbes/Getty Images

A study confirms that using lumbar traction with exercise for low back pain does not offer improved outcomes when compared to physical therapy exercises alone.

If you have low back pain, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist to help you get rid of your pain and return to your normal level of activity. Your PT may use various treatments to help your condition. Lumbar traction may be one of those treatments.

But does lumbar traction really help low back pain or sciatica? Maybe not.

What is Lumbar Traction?

Lumbar traction is a therapeutic modality used by some physical therapists to treat back pain or sciatica. Lumbar, or low back, traction helps to separate the spaces between your vertebrae, the bones that make up your spine. In theory, separating these bones slightly can help take pressure off pinched nerves to decrease your pain and improve your mobility.

Sounds good, right?

Whenever considering any PT modality or treatment, you should understand what the research shows about it. Is the use of the treatment simply due to an idea or theory, or is it proven to work for your specific condition?

What Does the Research Show About Lumbar Traction?

A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy (JOSPT) examined the effect of adding lumbar traction to an extension-based exercise program for back pain.

A group of 120 patients with back pain and nerve root impingement were randomly selected to undergo either lumbar traction with exercises or simply exercises for pain. The exercises were extension-based, meaning that they focused on bending the spine backwards, a movement considered effective for many people with back pain and pinched nerves.

The results indicated that adding lumbar traction to PT exercises offered no significant benefit over extension-based exercise alone for back pain. Lumbar traction may simply be a waste of time (and resources) for back pain for this particular spinal condition. (Fancy machines like lumbar decompression fall into the category of traction, and so they likely offer no benefit to your back treatment regimen.)

The Best Treatment for Low Back Pain and Sciatica

If you have low back pain, exercise and postural correction may be your best bet to find relief. Research confirms that PT exercises can help you decrease pain and improve your mobility. Plus, exercise is an active treatment that you can do just about anywhere. You don't need to rely on going to the physical therapy clinic; you can learn how to treat your condition and then get to it. Your PT can also teach you how to prevent episodes of back pain.

Does it matter which exercise you do? Yes. A 2004 study found that if you do an exercise that centralizes your symptoms, you can realize rapid and lasting relief from your back pain.

(Centralization is the movement of pain to your spine, and centralization of pain that occurs as you exercise is a good sign. Your McKenzie-trained physical therapist can tell you more.)

So, starting an exercise program that centralizes your symptoms if you have spinal pain can help you get back to your normal lifestyle quickly and safely. Check in with your doctor before starting any exercise program for your back.

If you have low back pain or sciatica, you may benefit from various treatments from your physical therapist. If your PT offers you lumbar traction for your back pain, the results of this study indicate that it may not really be necessary. You should discuss your concerns with your therapist and perhaps see if there are any alternative treatments for you.

Exercise should be one of the main tools you use to treat and prevent your back pain. Your physical therapist is a movement expert who can show you which exercises are best for your condition. So, it may be a good idea to ditch the lumbar traction and get your back moving to help you quickly and safely return to your optimal level of activity.

Sources: Long, A. et al. Does it matter which exercise?  A randomized controlled trial of exercise for low back pain. Spine 2004; Dec 1, 29(23): 2593-602.

Thackeray, A, et al. The Effectiveness of Mechanical Traction Among Subgroups of Patients With Low Back Pain and Leg Pain: A Randomized Trial. JOSPT 2016; 46 (3): 144-154.

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