Spinal Traction

Spinal traction is an effective treatment for many painful back conditions, including those that cause radiating pain down the arms and legs. Spinal traction is a non-invasive treatment with few side effects, so it’s often recommended as an alternative to surgery. 

Spinal traction decompresses the spine by gently stretching it in opposite directions, relieving pressure on the discs and vertebrae and improving alignment. It can help improve painful spine conditions and can be performed manually or using a mechanical table.

Spinal traction reduces back pain and improves mobility in several ways. It creates more space between the vertebrae to reduce pressure on nerves and discs. It also creates a vacuum inside the spinal joints, which can pull a protruding disc back into the correct position.

Spinal traction also encourages increased blood flow to the discs, making it easier for them to receive oxygen and nutrients from the bloodstream. This means that spinal traction can encourage healing and tissue repair in damaged or diseased discs.

How Does Spinal Traction Work?

Spinal traction is usually performed during an outpatient appointment at a physical therapy clinic. During the appointment, the therapist may use their hands to gently pull on the legs to relieve pressure in the spine.

However, most people will have mechanical spinal traction. This procedure often uses a special table with weights that attach to the body and stretch the spine. This stretching may be performed continuously or at intervals. However, some traction machines stretch the spine using the patient’s body weight by placing them in a vertical position. Others have tilting sections that let the patient apply the traction force themselves by moving their arms and legs.

Occasionally, spinal traction is performed by placing the patient in positions that stretch the spine. Therapists use special pillows, wedges or other items to support the patient in the correct position.

Spinal traction shouldn’t be painful because the treatment stretches the spine gently. However, patients are likely to experience a stretching sensation during treatment. It’s important to tell the therapist immediately if you feel pain during your spinal traction treatment. Many spinal traction machines have an auto-shutoff safety feature that immediately stops it from stretching the spine as soon as the patient feels pain. This feature helps prevent injury during treatment.

Doctors sometimes recommend having additional treatment alongside spinal traction to improve muscle tone, promote healing and provide pain relief. Electrotherapy is commonly used during or after spinal traction, and it involves using mild electrical currents in the affected area to reduce discomfort and improve circulation. Heat and cold packs can also be helpful.

Are you a good candidate for Spinal Traction?

  • Positive

    You have herniated or slipped discs, pinched nerves, soft tissue pain, sciatica or cervical spine instability.

  • Positive

    You have damaged tissue in your discs.

  • Negative

    You have a tumor, infection , vascular disorder, osteoporosis or ligamentous instability.

  • Negative

    You’re claustrophobic.

Frequently asked questions

How Effective Is Spinal Traction?

The effectiveness of spinal traction depends on the severity of each patient’s condition and what they’re being treated for. Various studies show that people with back pain causing radiating leg pain can generally expect a significant improvement in both discomfort and mobility. However, it’s important to discuss your expected prognosis with your doctor to assess how effective spinal traction is likely to be for your circumstances.


How Long Does Spinal Traction Take?

Each spinal traction session takes roughly 30-45 minutes, but the treatment length will vary according to the patient’s condition. Most patients will require multiple treatment sessions over four to six weeks, and some individuals will require multiple treatments per day. Generally, patients will need between 15 and 30 spinal traction sessions in total.


What Are Potential Side Effects of Spinal Traction?

Side effects caused by spinal traction are relatively uncommon, making it a popular non-invasive treatment for many painful spinal conditions. However, some patients report a dull, aching sensation when they first start the treatment, a little like the muscle aching caused by strenuous exercise. Although this can be uncomfortable, it is not a cause for concern and should ease within a few weeks. 

Patients are more likely to experience pain following spinal traction if they are being treated for a herniated disc. These patients often find that their pain comes and goes for a few weeks before experiencing relief. 

Occasionally spinal traction can cause existing back pain and radiating pain to get worse. This situation is relatively unlikely because worsening pain usually only occurs in patients with a condition that makes spinal traction unsuitable. Therefore, doctors and physical therapists take a full medical history before recommending spinal traction to reduce the risk of exacerbating symptoms. Examples of conditions that may make spinal traction unsuitable include:

  • Bone cancer and certain other cancers
  • Infected discs
  • Severe spondylolisthesis
  • Lumbar spine fractures (in some cases)
  • Pregnancy
  • Recent surgery to the spinal column

What Is Recovery after Spinal Traction Like?

Patients can continue to perform their usual activities following spinal traction therapy and should gradually notice improvements in their pain and mobility. Individuals experiencing soreness after spinal traction can take over-the-counter painkillers to ease any discomfort. 

Doctors and physicians can provide guidance on what to do during and after spinal traction therapy to optimize healing. Many practitioners recommend staying well-hydrated, taking certain supplements and doing physical therapy exercises to strengthen the core muscles and stabilize the spine. 


What Is Spinal Traction Used For?

Spinal traction is useful for treating pinched nerves, soft tissue pain, slipped or herniated discs and sciatica. However, it’s a particularly effective treatment for cervical spine instability

Cervical spine instability is when the cervical spine becomes damaged following an accident or due to disease. This can cause the vertebrae to move abnormally or broken vertebrae to heal in an abnormal position, potentially causing pain and neurological problems. Spinal traction helps by encouraging the spinal column into a normal position so the bones can heal correctly. 

Spinal traction can also be beneficial for patients with radiculopathy caused by a bulging disc. This condition can pinch nerves in the spine, leading to pain and changes in sensation. Stretching the spine reduces pressure on the nerves to reduce discomfort. 


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