Traction Therapy – No Help in Long Term

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Traction Therapy

Many people may have heard stories about their friends having treatment for their spinal pains in hospitals or physiotherapy clinics. They were strapped into a contraption to stretch their back or neck. This device is called a traction machine. To some, the description may sound intimidating or even medieval. It is, however, actually a very gentle form of treatment. It is extremely effective when applied appropriately in specific conditions.

What Does A Traction Machine Do?

traction machine
Traction Machine

As the name implies, a traction machine applies traction to the spinal column. Traction can be applied to both the lower back and the neck depending on where the pathology is. The harness is usually wrapped around the lower back or under the chin and base of skull. It is then attached to the machine that pulls at a controlled speed, rate and weight as set by the physiotherapist. Imagine the neck pulling in one direction by the traction machines and the body weight acting as a counter force. This results in the “lengthening” of the cervical spine.

The pressure within the structures, such as the disc, reduces as the spinal structures are gently pulled away from each other. As such, the space from which nerves exit the spinal cord increases. Therefore, traction is suitable for conditions with compressive stress within the spinal structures like disc proplapses and nerve impingements.

What Conditions Does It Treat?

Besides disc prolapses and nerve impingements of the cervical and lumbar spine, another condition that traction is sometimes used for is cervical spondylosis. Since the traction machine can pull and release to a pre-set weight, it creates a lengthening-shortening cycle, hence allowing stiff joints to move. Anecdotally, traction therapy has not been found to be as effective as other manual techniques available. Functionally, the spinal joints do not move in that manner. Secondly, other issues such as muscle spasm and joint mal-position cannot be addressed this way. When the client is in too much pain to be treated manually, it can, however, be used as a preliminary technique.

When Should It Not Be Used?

In general, traction should not be used when there is a disease process that reduces the body’s tolerance to force. When there is a tumour, infection, vascular disorder, ligamentous instability, inflammatory arthritis and osteoporosis, traction is used with caution.

Traction Is Not A Long Term Solution  

Traction is a tool that is useful only for conditions where decompression is required. Examples are nerve impingements and disc prolapses. As poor posture, movement patterns and muscle strength are the primary causes for disc prolapses and impingements, traction alone may reduce the pain but is not a long term solution to the rehabilitation of disc prolapses and nerve impingements.

A study recently conducted on the effects of traction and its treatment effects on clients with neck pain and the associated arm pain showed no significant additional benefit when compared to treatment without traction. Correcting posture, movement patterns and building core strength are the long-term solutions to back pain.


Young I A, Michener L A, Cleland J A, Aguilera A J and Synder A R. Manual therapy, exercise and traction for patients with cervical radiculopathy: A Randomised clinical trial. Physical Therapy 2009:89;632.