What is Spinal Traction and Does It Work for Back & Neck Pain?

By Dr. Matthew A. Neumann

Spinal traction is a widely used treatment for low back pain as well as neck pain. Traction utilizes a force and counterforce to pull in opposite directions to relieve spine related pain. 

Although the exact mechanism is unclear, it is believed that spinal traction works to relieve pain by increasing the space between the vertebrae and inhibiting pain impulses. It also may improve spinal mobility by relaxing the musculature around the spine and decreasing mechanical stress. It is also thought to reduce muscle spasm and spinal nerve root compression, as well as potentially releasing adhesions around the small joints in the spine.

Several studies have found that traction can significantly improve both neck as well as back pain when used in conjunction with other therapies.

Traction can be used by practitioners during guided treatment as well as by patients during home therapy. Types of traction devices include manual traction, mechanical traction, and gravity dependent traction:

  1. Manual traction is done by a licensed physical therapist. The therapist uses their hands to decompress the spine by gently pulling the patient’s head or neck away from the body, holding for several seconds, then releasing. 
  2. Mechanical traction may be done at home using a harness device prescribed by a physician or other practitioner.

    The most common at home traction device for the cervical spine utilizes an over-the-door mechanism that applies 10 to 20 pounds of pulling force. This type of traction may be done several times throughout the day for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. This amount of force may be increased as strength is obtained. 

    Lumbar traction uses a harness applied via Velcro strapping around the lower rib cage and the pelvic bones (the iliac crest). It can be applied via continuous or intermittent mode. The lumbar spine traction may require up to 100 pounds of force for effective decompression. 
  3. Gravity dependent traction can be done via a home inversion table. This device raises the patient’s feet above the head, effectively reversing the effects of gravity on the lumbar spine, which allows for decompression.

If you think you may be a candidate for spinal traction please visit one of our professionals at The Spine Center of Baton Rouge for further information.

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