Spinal traction is a type of manual therapy that is sometimes used in the treatment of back pain or spine conditions. Many people are satisfied with the results, but this therapy hasn't been proven to relieve pain or structural spine issues, and it can cause adverse effects—such as injuries.
You can receive this treatment from a physical therapist, chiropractor, or another spine specialist. The neck and low back are the most common areas of the spine to receive traction. The purpose of spinal traction is to pull adjacent bones away from each other to make more room between them.
The bones, ligaments, discs, and nerves in a spinal segment can become compressed, giving you pain and/or other symptoms. The purpose of traction is to open space between these structures to relieve the compression.
A Jan 2018 review of studies published in the journal Physical Therapy found that both mechanical and manual traction for cervical radiculopathy—in combination with other common physical therapy treatments—may help with pain reduction and physical functioning. That said, the researchers conclude that the effects of traction are more pronounced for pain relief than they are for decreasing disability or increasing functioning.
Who Benefits From Spinal Traction?
Traction is given to people with low back pain and neck pain for relief of symptoms, including radiculopathy symptoms. Symptoms of radiculopathy 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.
This approach is also used for treating spinal stenosis or spondylosis to relieve pressure on the intervertebral foramen (holes at the sides of the spine through which spinal nerves pass on their way out to the rest of the body). Providing space around intervertebral foramen may help nerves pass through unimpeded and without irritation.
How Is Spinal Traction Given?
Traction may be applied using a machine or manually. You should feel relaxed during your treatment. If your traction treatment tenses you up, be sure to say something about it to your practitioner.
When spinal traction is given manually, it will likely be done by a physical therapist, massage therapist, or bodyworker, who will give you treatment with their hands.
Spinal traction machines run continuously for up to 10 minutes at a time, or intermittently for up to 15 minutes. Some traction machines are computerized. Computerized spinal traction can help your therapist closely control the direction of motion applied during your treatment.
Weights may be used to provide force. You'll probably be started with light weights, and your therapist may increase the weight over time.
For cervical traction, a weight equal to about 10-15% of your body weight may be applied.
For lumbar traction, the applied weight may equal about 30-50% of your body weight.
Spinal Traction Side Effects
Spinal traction does not have many associated side effects. But adverse effects can occur—and may include injury to tissue, nausea, fainting, or headache.
Spine Injury and Facet Joint Traction
Joint elongation provided by spine traction aims to allow the facets, which are at the back of each spinal bone, to slide over one another. Elongation also might relieve pressure on structures in the spinal cord, including blood vessels and nerve roots.
The improved circulation afforded by spinal traction may also reduce inflammation. And increased joint motion may contribute to pain relief and help release muscle spasms.
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, a 2011 review also conducted by the Cochrane Back Group revealed no evidence for or 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 hands-on spinal traction anytime soon.