Is Traction Good for Neck Pain?

Posted by Steve Sudell on

The neck has the onerous task of holding up and supporting the weight of our heads as well as protecting the nerves, which carry sensory and motor coordination information from the brain into other areas of the body. This flexible structural support connects the torso to the head and allows the head to flex and turn in a wide range of motion. Because the head is so essential for nearly every mechanical action the body performs, it should be no surprise that all of that use and strain can lead to neck stiffness, pain, headache, and injury. In all likelihood, we will experience neck pain and stiffness at one point or another on a semi-frequent basis. The odds of this occurring only increase as we age, accumulate injuries, wear and tear, and undergo natural deterioration of bones, ligaments, and muscles.  

Most of us spend hours a day at the computer or on our phone, and regular use of these common causes of neck pain tends to lead to slouching, poor posture, and a forward-leaning head. Such bad habits create stress in the upper back, shoulders, and neck. This stress causes the muscles in those areas to become overworked, tensed, shortened and can make such regions vulnerable to injury, strain, or muscle spasms. As you likely know, few things are more annoying or debilitating than even minor neck injury since it hampers your ability to accomplish even the simplest of tasks such as driving, walking, exercising, and looking around. Implement simple adjustments to improve your neck posture in hopes of preventing these injuries.

Neck strains or sprains will often time also lead to shoulder pain, upper back tension, headache, and other adverse physical complications. Because of this, it is crucial that you nip the problem in the bud and seek treatment and pain relief as soon as possible. The treatment required for managing and reducing the neck pain will obviously depend upon the condition or gravity of the injury. Such issues can range from short-term annoyances that only require stretching and perhaps a single visit doctor or physical therapist, to an ongoing and serious problem that needs regular therapy, pain management, or even surgery.

Now, there are a variety of solutions or general treatments for the symptoms of chronic neck pain. These remedies might include anything from stretching, physical therapy, aerobic exercise, and massage therapy, to yoga, anti-inflammatories, and hot or cold treatment. While beneficial, some of these options can be quite a time consuming and expensive process. There is, however, one solution that is both cheap and easy and that many do not consider; while not well known to the general public this method has become popular with doctors and chiropractors. It is called traction. This form of traction therapy involves the stretching of the spine’s cervix and is a simple and non-invasive method of treating neck pain. Below we will discuss what it is and the benefits it provides.

What is Traction?

Cervical traction is a treatment useful for treating neck pain. It refers to the practice of gently and gradually pulling on the bones to create space between them that has been reduced by time, wear, injury, and compression, causing conditions like cervical spondylosis. Typically, it can be performed manually or with the help of a device using ropes, a sling, a hammock, pulleys, or weights. These tools will help stretch an injured area, guiding the bones back into their rightful place and creating space between them. Traction can be used for the following reasons:

  • Stretch the neck
  • Pain reduction for a fracture prior to surgery
  • Realign bone fractures and stabilize the bones
  • For treating conditions such as scoliosis
  • Prevent muscle spasms
  • Fix tight tendons, muscles, joints, and skin

Cervical traction can help lower the compressive forces in the neck, reducing the pressure from the cervical discs in the neck. By stretching them, it creates room for the nerves attached to the spinal canal. This extra space is both a pain and pressure reliever since it keeps the disk from pressing down onto the nerve. Further, it can stretch the joint structures of the neck as well as the muscles that support the neck.

Types of Cervical Traction

In the early days of cervical traction, a patient in acute pain would undergo this treatment as a rather serious medical procedure, which involved a general anesthetic. So, while a patient was under, a metal brace was placed around the neck. This brace was attached to weights or a body harness which were pulled to create traction in hopes of alleviating the hurt area. In many cases, it was used to immobilize and steady the spine after a severe neck injury or to deal with skin and tissue injuries.

While it had its uses and was considered to be state-of-the-art treatment, it had various risks associated including:

  • Adverse reaction to the anesthesia
  • An infection of the pin site
  • Damage to the surrounding tissue
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Nerve injury from too much weight being applied
  • Vascular injury from too much weight being applied

While it was revolutionary at the time and responsible for saving many soldiers’ lives during WWII, medical advances, surgical techniques, and technological improvements have rendered this form of traction obsolete. These days, however, less serious types of cervical traction can be employed to treat chronic neck pain. There are a variety of cervical traction force methods that can be done either at home or with a doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist. Generally, it is wise to speak with one of these experts in order to decide the ideal method for your needs. While it is beneficial for most types of neck pain, it is not a remedy for all kinds and can, in fact, exacerbate some problems we will discuss later. Because of this, if your neck pain is a result of severe trauma or injury, consult a doctor before you employ this method.

  • Manual cervical traction – A chiropractor or physical therapist can do manual cervical traction. Typically, it involves the patient lying down on their back. The specialist will cradle the head, lift it up, then gradually pull the head away from the neck. This position is held for some time before releasing. This stretch will be repeated several times and can be adjusted or turned from side to side so that it puts the neck in a position ideal for achieving the optimal outcomes. The force of this rhythmic, gentle, pulling is what creates space, alleviating pain and tension.  
  • Mechanical cervical traction – Mechanical cervical traction is a device that physical therapists will use for clients. They attach a harness to the head and neck while the patient lies on their back. The harness is connected to a machine or weight pulley system that applies traction force by steadily pulling the head away from the neck and spine.
  • At home cervical traction – An at-home device is ideal for people with mild to moderate neck issues that want to experience the benefits of traction on a daily basis without requiring the presence of a physical therapist. The Neck Hammock, for example, is the leading at home cervical traction device in the industry. In order to use this device follow these steps:
    • Wrap the straps of the Neck Hammock device around a doorknob then close the door.
    • Adjust the straps to the desired height; ideally, the Neck Hammock’s cradle should rest 2-4 inches off the ground. (For an average adult male, it should be somewhere from 3-4 inches off the ground for an ideal stretch.
    • Place your head in the neck and let the device do its job, alleviating pressure in the muscles of the neck and creating space between the bones of the neck.
    • Listen to your neck’s response, if the stretch is painful or feels like it is too great a stretch, lower the Neck Hammock to decrease tension.
    • Once the ideal stretch is set, relax and hold that position for as long as desired.
    • Repeat throughout the day.

Is Cervical Traction Right for You?

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms associated with chronic neck pain, traction may be ideal for alleviating your neck pain.

  • Clicking of bones in the neck: When you move your neck, do you hear an inner clicking, grinding, or popping in your neck especially as you rotate the head one way or another?
  • Chronic Headaches: Do you regularly experience headaches? These can be caused by pinched nerves in the neck, especially in the area of the occipital nerve.
  • Limited Range of Motion: When you move or turn your neck do you feel as if your range of motion is stunted? Typically, one side will be affected more than the other.
  • Local Pain: Do you feel pain in a specific area of the neck? This pain can range from more of an ache to a sharp pain depending on the gravity of the injury or compressed nerve.

A 2005 study found significant improvements in patients dealing with bulging or herniated disks. Per the study, “We investigated the effects of continuous lumbar traction in patients with lumbar disc herniation on clinical findings, and the size of the herniated disc measured by computed tomography (CT). In this prospective, randomized, controlled study, 46 patients with lumbar disc herniation were included and randomized into two groups as the traction group (24 patients), and the control group (22 patients). The traction group was given a physical therapy program and continuous lumbar traction. The control group was given the same physical therapy program without traction, for the same duration of time. Data for the clinical symptoms and signs were collected before and after the treatment together with a calculation of a herniation index, from the CT images that showed the size of the herniated disc material. In the traction group, most of the clinical findings significantly improved with treatment” [1.]

Further studies have shown that traction is good for treating pain in the following conditions:

  • Cervical muscles spasms
  • Cervical radiculopathy
  • Cervical spinal stenosis
  • Cervical spondylosis
  • Neck spasticity
  • Herniated disks in the neck
  • Neck arthritis
  • Neck strains

Side Effects of Cervical Traction

Traction has been shown to be an effective method for dealing with pain in the region of the neck. For the vast majority of people, this form of pain relief will only have beneficial effects; however, a select few can have traction worsen their condition, especially if they go past the realm of a comfortable stretch.

In some cases, cervical traction has lead to the following side effects:

  • Cervical spinal stenosis (neck)
  • Muscle tension
  • Numbness in the arm(s)
  • Pain
  • Tightness in neck

If you do experience any of the following side effects, immediately stop using traction for pain relief. If you ignore these warnings provided by your body and continue to apply traction, you could further injure the neck or exacerbate a previously minor condition. Go to your doctor, chiropractor, or physical therapist and have them examine the sensitive area. Speak with them about the proper course of action.

Conclusion

For most cases of neck pain, especially those that are not dire, cervical traction is a cheap and effective form of pain relief. Frequent use throughout the day can provide a variety of physical benefits that will improve your day to day life. Just as with the rest of your muscles, regular stretching is crucial, not only as a means of relaxing the muscles and pain relief but also as a form of injury prevention. Before you do use traction, speak to your doctor or chiropractor about whether it is right for you. As your therapy continues, communicate with them and closely monitor your body’s response to traction therapy.

Sources

“Effect of continuous lumbar traction on the size of herniated disc material in lumbar disc herniation.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16249899

“A randomized clinical trial of the effectiveness of mechanical traction for sub-groups of patients with low back pain: study methods and rationale.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2874768/

“Changes in cervical muscle activity according to the traction force of an air-inflatable neck traction device” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4616079/