What is Mechanical Traction?
Mechanical traction is a tool that physical therapists have for the treatment of low back pain. The idea behind traction is distracting the joints in the spine to relieve pain and decrease any radiating symptoms down the leg. The patient lays on their back or stomach during mechanical traction. The machine is set to specific settings in relationship to one’s body weight. Then, the machine pulls the patient’s body gradually to distract the spine. It is important to understand the basic anatomy of the spine to further understand this treatment tool.
The anatomy of the spine consists of our vertebrae stacked on top of each other with a disc in between the vertebral bones. In addition, various nerves leave our spine to provide sensation and muscle contractions to our arms and legs. One cause of low back pain is when a disc bulges and irritates the nerves leaving the spine. The thought process is that traction may help the disc return to its intended position in the spine. It is important to remember that each case is different and the amount of disc bulging can affect the extent of radicular symptoms. The intensity and duration of symptoms will affect the possible the benefit of traction.
Thackeray et.al. performed a study in 2016 to determine the effects of mechanical traction with targeted positional exercise compared to positional exercises alone (1). The researchers discovered that there is no significant change in disability or pain with the addition of mechanical lumbar traction. While some patients may find relief from traction directly after treatment, the research has shown that there is no significant long-term benefit. While traction is a feel-good treatment, gravity will inevitably return and compress the spine once you sit up afterwards.
Traction is just one tool that physical therapists have, but it is not our primary focus in treatment for low back pain. To maintain improvements in low back pain, it is important to address increased core strength. The deep core muscles act as a corset to stabilize your spine. The specific muscle is called the transverse abdominus. It is activated through an exercise called core breathing. Your physical therapist will spend time during your sessions to ensure proper activation of this muscle for long term improvements in back pain. Carrying on with these exercises to reduce the risk of recurring back pain is essential in long term benefits from physical therapy.
At Pacific Physical Therapy we have traction tables at both of our locations in Port Orchard and Silverdale, located in Kitsap County. If you feel like traction could ease your back pain and would like to have an evaluation from one of our Physical Therapists. Please contact our offices at 360-329-7052 to reach our Port Orchard Office or 360-625-9161 to reach our Silverdale Office.
Jill Hoffman PT, DPT is a physical therapist specializing in treating orthopedic conditions.
- Thackeray A, Fritz JM, Childs JD, Brennan GP. The Effectiveness of Mechanical Traction Among Subgroups of Patients With Low Back Pain and Leg Pain: A Randomized Trial. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Mar;46(3):144-54. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2016.6238. Epub 2016 Jan 26. PMID: 26813755.