Traction for Your Spine - What You Need to Know

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

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 neck and low back are the most common areas of the spine to receive 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 include 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.)

It is also given to people with spinal stenosis, or spondylosis.  The thinking here is that making space around intervertebral foramen increases the chance for nerves to pass through that area unimpeded, and therefore without irritation. (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, or manually (as when a therapist give you a treatment with their hands.)

Spinal traction machines run continuously for up to 10 minutes at a time, or intermittently for up to 15 minutes.

When spinal traction is given by machine, your chiropractor or therapist will hook you up to the device, and keep you on it for 10 minutes if the machine is set to run continuously, or up to 15 minutes for intermittently delivered traction.

Weights may be used to provide force; in this case, you'll probably be started with light weights, and over time increase to about 15 pounds.

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

As technology advances, more traction machines are computer operated. (An example is the Triton DTS from Chattanooga.) Practitioners who give computerized spinal traction to their patients claim 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 with acute neck or back pain.

Spinal Traction Side Effects

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

What Spinal Traction Does

Joint elongation provided by traction to the spine allows the facets, which are part of each spinal bone located in back, to slide over one another. Elongation 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 help elongate the muscles that attach to the joints, as well. This is one more way it may help your back muscles release out of 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 found that it has 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 a lot of bias and small numbers of participants in the studies they evaluated.

Similarly, in a 2011 review also conducted by 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.)

Source:

Graham, et. al. Mechanical traction for neck pain with or without symptoms that radiate to the neck or arm. Cochrane Database.  Feb. 2011. 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.

Wegner, I., et. al. Traction for low-back pain with or without sciatica. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Aug 2013.

 

 

 

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