What is Traction and How Does It Work?

Posted by Sheila Beals on

Remember this poor guy who really needed a glass of milk?

While a comical and exaggerated example, this patient isn’t able to reach for a drink on his own due to the fact that he’s in traction. While most of us are familiar with the term, very few understand the process of traction unless you’ve experienced it for yourself.

So what is traction? Traction is the medical practice of slowly and gently pulling on a specific body part — often using weights and pulleys — to apply subtle force to the tissue surrounding an injured part of the body and move it back into its intended position. Our unlucky friend in the hospital bed appears to need to move several bones back into their proper place, and is using traction to do so.

Traction is most often used to:

  • Stabilize and restore the position of a bone following a break
  • Ease the pain of a broken bone while awaiting corrective surgery
  • Treat bone-related conditions and deformities such as scoliosis
  • Alleviate stiff muscles and joints
  • Stretch the neck to alleviate recurring muscle spasms or headaches, or reduce pressure on the spine

Various Types of Traction

There are three primary types of traction, each with a specific purpose to help heal the body. The type of traction needed depends on the injury or ailment, with skeletal, skin and spinal traction all common remedies.

  1. Skeletal traction involves the surgical placement of a pin, wire or screw directly into a fractured bone with weights then attached through pulleys or ropes to control pulling the bone into the correct position. This is the preferred type of traction when significant force needs to be applied to an area, such as a femur, pelvis or hip break, without damaging surrounding soft tissues.

  2. Skin traction is far less invasive and involves applying splints, bandages or adhesive to the skin below the point of the fractured bone. Weights are added to the splint, bandage or adhesive using a pulley system, with the bone pulled into the correct position. Skin traction is most often used to correct damage to the soft tissues, such as muscles and tendons.

  3. Spinal traction is non-invasive and designed to relieve pressure on the neck and spine. It can be done manually or mechanically, and is also safe to perform at home with physician guidance. It’s often used to alleviate pain associated with herniated discs, sciatica, pinched nerves and other back conditions. Since the spine is separated into three sections, spinal traction can be broken down into the following three sub- categories:​
    • Cervical traction targets the neck and involves a healthcare provider placing your head in a cervical traction device while lying down, with the device gently pulling the head to create space in the neck. This allows the muscles along the spine to relax and gradually stretch. This form of traction is used to relieve muscle spasms or pinched nerves in the neck and upper back, and can also be done manually. A more complicated type of cervical traction involves a metal brace around the neck to restrict spine movement following a neck injury.

    • Thoracic traction targets the spine in the upper back to the bottom of the ribs and works by leveraging stretching positions and gravity to force the middle spinal joints open. This can be done at home or with the assistance of a medical professional by positioning your body chest-up off the side of a bed or traction table, and hanging your head, neck, and upper back off until the stretching is targeting the exact problem area. Foam rollers used on the floor are also ideal for thoracic area traction.

    • Lumbar traction targets your lower back and works by applying a stretching force to the lumbar vertebrae to adjust individual joints of this section of the spine. It’s most often performed by laying face-down on a traction table divided into two sections, with a medical professional tilting and rotating the lower half of the table to stretch the lower back. A mechanical option using a pulley system is also an option for lumbar traction.

Unique Aspects of Spinal Traction

Spinal traction is the one type of traction that can be administered by both a doctor and by yourself at home. While it’s a medical practice leveraged for both mild and serious injuries of the neck and back, it’s also a proven at-home remedy that can alleviate sore neck muscles, back pain, stiffness, and chronic headaches — all of which can lead to sleep problems, stress and difficulty relaxing. Using cervical traction as an example, relax your body and lightly pull your head to create space between the bones in your neck to reduce tension. This can be done in various directions and with varying degrees of tension.

There are effective at-home devices that help assist this process, such as the Neck Hammock. This portable device can be used anywhere and eases neck pain in 10 minutes or less. After being attached securely to a door knob, door jamb, pole or post, the Neck Hammock should rest 2-4” off the ground for the greatest tension. The user simply lies back with their head resting in the hammock, relaxing into comfort. It can be used daily, and through stretching and relaxing neck muscles, users experience increased mobility and noticeable improvement in pain, headaches, sleep quality, stress level and more. There are also at-home devices designed to specifically target the thoracic and lumbar sections of the spine.

It’s important to remember that spinal traction administered at home, whether done several times a day or just a few times a week, is both safe and effective. However, while it’s highly- effective in alleviating pain, chronic pain should be addressed by a physician.


Assessing Traction Needed

A licensed healthcare provider should be consulted before using any type of traction, with the exception of light spinal traction done at home for bothersome neck and back pain. Both skeletal and skin traction require x-rays to confirm a bone break, with x-rays repeated to ensure bone re-alignment is proceeding correctly. A healthcare provider will assess the condition and recommend the type of traction, amount of tension to be applied, an overall care regimen, and length of treatment.