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Spinal Traction


Spinal Traction in Physical Therapy

The widest variety of traction devices are for cervical traction. They range from computerized, table-based units that cost thousands of dollars and are usually found in the offices of chiropractors or physical therapists to over-the-door units that cost no more than $20. Don’t let the cost decide for you, though.

The whole idea of traction is that you keep your body relaxed while the appropriate amount of force is applied. In the case of the over-the-door pulley systems, the resistance usually comes from a weight placed on the end of the line that connects to the head harness. Typically, this weight comes from a bag of water.  Keep in mind it takes at least 20 pounds of pull, which equals about 2-1/2 gallons of water. For someone with neck or arm pain, handling the weight to get themselves into the harness can be very difficult. Other devices allow you to lie down and apply traction in other ways, including use of pneumatic harnesses (air-driven like a bicycle pump).

Lumbar traction is usually administered using a large device in a clinic. However, two similar home methods are moderately popular. One is a pneumatic version that works much the same way as the cervical version and can be done anywhere. The other is the inversion table. With this machine, you strap yourself into the leg clasps then flip over and hang upside down. One of the dangers of this is that hanging upside down often causes headaches and may cause alterations in blood pressure. It often takes several sessions to get used to using this apparatus. Clinically, lumbar traction is performed with different types of machines that range from manual control to computer controlled. Some even incorporate heat sources, electrical stimulation and music or DVD players. Regardless of the bells and whistles, the premise is the same: Pull the top half and the bottom half of the body away from each other. All systems rely on the ability to get a good hold on the body segments in order to pull with enough force (at least half the body weight) to make a difference. As with cervical traction, lumbar traction can be done in either sustained or intermittent modes.

There is no clear-cut evidence that spinal traction should be the primary treatment for any particular patient or for any certain symptoms. But cervical and upper extremity symptoms seem to show the most promise in being positively affected by intermittent traction. Traction may be an appropriate tool in the treatment of your neck or back pain or even nerve pain in the arms or legs. This should not be relied upon as your primary or sole treatment. When done in conjunction with stabilization exercises, joint manipulations, postural corrections and movement corrections, your chances of seeing improvement are much greater.


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