Therapeutic Spinal Traction

Mechanical and Compressive Pain
There are many types of disorders known to cause back pain including those defined as mechanical and/or compressive. Mechanical back pain commonly stems from injury or a degenerative process affecting discs, joints, ligaments and/or muscles. Pain from an irritated or 'compressed' nerve root, such as in Sciatica, is termed compressive pain.

Conservative forms of treatment may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, a muscle relaxant, a prescription drug for pain during the acute phase, and physical therapy. Along with these therapies, spinal traction may be recommended.

whiplash, man in neck brace

Spinal Traction - What It Does
Therapeutic spinal traction uses manually or mechanically created forces to stretch and mobilize the spine. Traction may alleviate back pain by stretching tight spinal muscles that result from spasm and widen intervertebral foramen to relieve nerve root impingement.

Patient Evaluation
Each patient is unique and what works well for one patient may not be appropriate for another. Therefore, each prospective patient is carefully evaluated prior to treatment. This assessment enables the therapist to make decisions about the type of traction to be utilized, the force/weight of distraction, and the duration of treatment.

The goal of traction is to reduce pain to assist the patient to become more functional. Therapy should be relaxing - not cause additional or new pain. Therefore, the initial session of therapeutic traction typically uses less force or weight during distraction (pull away). The therapist carefully follows cues from the patient relative to their tolerance level, which includes bodily positioning.

Traction Techniques
Techniques applied in spinal traction are dependent in part on the patient's physical condition, disorder, individual tolerance, and the spinal level(s) to be treated. Application of traction may be manual, positional, or mechanical. Traction may be applied as a continuous force or intermittently. The techniques presented below are not all inclusive.

Cervical Traction
Manual therapeutic traction is a hands' on approach. The patient lies in a relaxed and comfortable position on the table supine. The therapist carefully positions their hands in such a way to support the patient's head during distraction. The force is gentle, stable, and controlled.

During traction the therapist may reposition the head to one side, flex, or extend the neck using their hands. A change in head position during traction may affect more positive results in reducing the patient's symptoms.

A mechanical traction device used to treat the cervical spine is comprised of a head halter with over-the-door pulley system. Some patients are allowed to use this system at home after the therapist teaches them how to set the system up, wear the halter, apply the weights correctly, and duration of traction treatment. The patient may be able to use the head halter sitting, reclining, or laying supine.

Lumbar Traction
Manual Lumbar traction involves distracting almost half of the body's weight and therefore requires more of the therapist's strength. After the patient is positioned, the therapist may pull at the ankles, once again using controlled force. Another technique involves draping the patient's legs over the therapist's shoulders. The therapist then steadily pulls with their arms positioned across the patient's thighs. An alternative is a pelvic belt with straps used for distraction.

Mechanical traction may incorporate the use of a motorized split-traction table. The patient is placed in a pelvic harness secured to one end of the table. Some motorized units are computerized enabling the therapist to program the patient's session of therapeutic traction.

When the structural integrity of the spine is compromised, such as in osteoporosis, infection, tumor, or cervical rheumatoid arthritis, traction is not a treatment option. Physical conditions such as pregnancy, cardiovascular disease, hernia, and in some cases TMJ, exclude patients from spinal traction. In these situations, the forces used in traction (movement) could potentially be dangerous.

Therapeutic spinal traction is not a new concept. Today, the first patient to experience spinal traction would be more than 100 years old! Since then, many studies have been conducted to determine the efficacy of spinal traction. However, these have proved inconclusive.

Updated on: 03/22/16
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Pain Management Center

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