What is Spinal Traction?

Triton DTS Spinal Decompression Machine
Triton DTS Spinal Decompression Machine. Premiere Chiropractic

What is Spinal Traction?

Spinal 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 away from each other in order to make more room between them. Traction also stretches the soft tissue that surrounds the joint.

Traction can be given manually, by means of a device or via positioning.

 

The most common areas of the spine to receive this treatment are the neck (cervical traction) and the low back (lumbar traction.) 

Who Benefits from Spinal Traction?

Traction is given to people with low back pain and neck pain for relief of symptoms, including radicular symptoms.  (Radicular symptoms are generally felt as pain, weakness, numbness and/or electrical feelings that go down one leg or one arm, and are caused by irritation to one or more spinal nerve roots.)

Traction is sometimes given to people with spinal stenosis, or spondylosis - the thinking is that traction makes space around intervertebral foramen, thereby allowing nerves to pass unimpeded, and therefore without irriation. (The intervertebral foramen are holes through which spinal nerves pass on their way out to the rest of the body.)

How is Spinal Traction Given?

Traction may be given by a machine.  When this is the case, you'll get hooked up to the traction device.

 The machine will run 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 likely start you off with light weights, increasing up to 15 pounds over time.

The idea here is to help you relax, so if your traction treatment tenses you up, be sure to say something about it!

As technology advances, many traction machines are now computer operated.  (An example is the Triton DTS from Chattanooga.)  Practitioners who give computerized spinal traction to their patients claim  that the electronic approach allows them to more closely match the direction of motion applied during treatment to their patient's specific spinal problem.

Spinal traction is also given manually by physical therapists, massage therapists and bodyworkers. Generally, this is the only type of traction given to people whose back or neck pain is acute.

Spinal Traction Side Effects

Spinal traction does not have many associated side effects.  The few that may occur include injury to tissue, nausea, fainting and headache.

What Spinal Traction Does

Joint elongation provided by traction to the spine allows facets to slide over one another.  It also might increase circulation and relieve pressure on the spinal cord (including its blood vessels and nerve roots.)

The improved circulation afforded by spinal traction may offer another, more indirect benefit:  Decreasing chemicals due to inflammation in damaged tissues.

Not only that, but the increased joint motion may contribute to pain relief by calming the activity of your nerves.

A spinal traction treatment may elongate the ligaments and muscles that attach to the joints, as well. Because of this, it may help also help relieve back spasm.

Spinal Traction - Does it Really Work?

Although many people can attest to the fact that traction on the spine feels good, a 2013 review of medical literature by the Cochrane Back Group reveals little or no effect on pain, ability to function, overall improvement or the speed at which you can return to work after a low back injury.  They say this is true whether traction is the only treatment, or if it is combined with other therapies.  The researchers note that the only studies available for them to look had a lot of bias as well as small numbers of study participants. 

Similarly, a review of studies called "Mechanical traction for neck pain with or without symptoms that radiate to the neck or arm," the Cochrane Back Group revealed no evidence - i.e., neither for nor against - this therapy.  

Just the same, the use of traction is alive and well in chiropractic and physical therapy offices as an adjunct treatment. And, as long as their patients report positive experiences, manual and massage therapists are not likely to give up the art of hand on spinal traction anytime soon!

(Disclaimer:  I am a consumer reviewer for the Cochrane Back Group, which means I provide input on making their reporting relevant to spine patients and their families or caretakers.)

Sources:
Wegner, et. al. Traction for Low Back Pain.  Cochrane Database. Accessed June 2015.http://www.cochrane.org/CD003010/BACK_traction-for-low-back-pain

Graham, et. al. Mechanical traction for neck pain with or without symptoms that radiate to the neck or arm. Cochrane Database.  Feb. 2011. Accessed June 2015.  http://www.cochrane.org/CD006408/BACK_mechanical-traction-for-neck-pain-with-or-without-symptoms-that-radiate-to-the-neck-or-arm

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.

Medline Plus.  Traction.  U.S. National Library of Medicine..  Last Updated 2013. Accessed. June 2015.  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002336.htm

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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