Cervical Traction: Exercises and Benefits for Neck Pain

A Complementary Treatment for Short-Term Relief

Cervical traction is a treatment often used in physical therapy to help treat neck pain and cervical radiculopathy (pinched nerves). It involves gently stretching your neck and separating the disc and joint surfaces in your cervical spine (neck).

Cervical spinal traction is used to treat neck disorders such as degenerative disc disease, herniated or bulging discs in the neck, arthritis, radiculopathy, and muscle spasms. A cervical traction device is used to gently pull your head away from your neck, expanding the space between vertebrae and helping to alleviate pinched or compressed nerves. 

This article discusses cervical traction for neck pain, how cervical traction devices work, and what you can expect from treatment.

what conditions benefit from cervical traction

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Physical Therapy for Neck Pain

If you have neck pain or pain in your arm coming from your neck, your healthcare provider may refer you to a physical therapist (PT) to help treat your condition. Neck pain can limit your ability to turn your head, look up or down, or perform normal activities like sleeping or exercising.

Symptoms that often come from your neck include:

  • Pain in the middle of your neck
  • Pain in one side of your neck
  • Pain in one or both of your shoulder blades
  • Occasionally, pain or numbness and tingling in your arm or hand

Since many different symptoms coming from your neck can be felt in many different places, it's important to see your healthcare provider or physical therapist to help determine the cause of your symptoms and to decide on the best way to manage your condition.

If you visit a physical therapist to help treat your painful neck condition, he or she will likely perform an initial assessment and then prescribe various treatments. One such treatment is cervical traction.

What Does Cervical Traction Do?

Cervical traction can be used for a variety of purposes.

  • It can be used to help decrease compressive forces in the neck, which can help take pressure off of the discs that reside between the vertebrae (spinal bones) in the neck.
  • It can also open up the spaces where nerves exit the spinal canal, which can help relieve pressure off of a compressed nerve.
  • Traction can also help stretch the muscles and joint structures around the neck.

Common diagnoses that may benefit from cervical traction include, but are not limited to:

  • Herniated or bulging discs in the neck
  • Neck strains
  • Neck arthritis
  • Cervical muscle spasms
  • Radiculopathy

If you have any of these conditions or symptoms, check in with your healthcare provider and visit your PT to see if cervical traction is right for you. Your PT can show you what to do (and what to avoid) to properly manage your neck pain.


Cervical spinal traction is not right for everyone. Conditions that make a person a poor candidates for cervical traction include: 

  • Aortic aneurysm
  • Diskitis
  • Myelopathy
  • Lung disease
  • Osteomyelitis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Pregnancy
  • Severe anxiety
  • Torticollis
  • Tumor on the spinal cord
  • Unstable neck ligaments
  • Untreated hypertension

Does Neck Traction Really Work?

When considering any medical treatment, in the PT clinic or elsewhere, it helps to understand what research is available for the treatment and how it may help your condition.

A 2017 meta-analysis published in the journal Spine examined seven different cervical traction studies. The researchers concluded that neck traction can possibly offer short-term neck pain relief. The research is inconclusive when determining if traction offers long-term relief, and more studies need to be done on cervical traction to determine this.

When considering cervical traction for your neck pain, it's important to speak with your PT to be sure it is right for you and to have realistic expectations for the treatment.

How is Cervical Traction Applied?

Cervical traction can be applied in many different ways. Your PT can help you determine the best one.

Options include:

  • Manual Cervical Traction: This type of traction is performed by your physical therapist, who holds your neck and head in their hands and then gently provides a traction or pulling force to your neck. Rhythmic periods of pulling and resting are usually applied, with each position being held for up to 10 seconds.
  • Mechanical Cervical Traction: Mechanical traction for your neck involves using a harness that attaches to your head and neck while you're lying down on your back. The harness is attached to a machine that can provide a traction force, and the machine has a control panel so that your physical therapist can change the amount of force applied to your neck.
  • Over-the-Door Traction: This type of traction can be used at home and involves strapping a harness to your head and neck while you're sitting in a chair. The harness is attached to a rope that's strung through a pulley system over your door, and traction force is applied using weights, a sandbag, or a water bag that's attached to the opposite end of the rope.

The pulling force involved will generally change depending on the patient's position, with less force being used in the supine position since you don't have to overcome the force of gravity. In this position, eight to 10 pounds is often recommended.

The force should be held for 10 to 20 seconds, and then slowly released. Increased pulling forces up to 40 to 50 pounds can be used, and rhythmic pulling and releasing should be continued for 10 to 20 minutes.

Traction can be applied several times throughout the day. Be sure to work closely with your physical therapist to help decide on the best treatment parameters for your specific condition.

If your symptoms worsen at any time during your treatment, notify your physical therapist immediately. He or she can make adjustments to your treatment, or traction can be discontinued altogether, and an alternative treatment can be started to treat your neck pain.

Can I Do Cervical Traction at Home?

Traction can be applied to your neck at home; this is most easily accomplished by an over-the-door traction unit that's available at many medical supply stores. If you purchase one, your PT can help you learn how to use the device, and can provide advice on the appropriate amount of force to use for your specific condition.

If you benefit from the mechanical traction in the physical therapy clinic, smaller traction units for home use are available that mimic the device used in the clinic. These devices are a bit more expensive than over-the-door traction units, but they're less cumbersome and easier to use than the door-mounted units. Your physical therapist can help you obtain a home mechanical traction unit if it's felt that you would benefit from one.

It is not a good idea to have someone who is not properly trained to perform cervical traction on your neck. You may injure your neck or worsen your condition if the correct application of traction is not performed.

Cervical Pillows

Talk to your physical therapist about cervical traction pillows that can help support your neck while you sleep. Also called a neck roll, these pillows keep your neck in proper alignment while you sleep, which helps minimize or eliminate neck pain. 

A Word From Verywell

If you have neck pain, fear not. Most cases of cervical or neck pain resolve with a short course of physical therapy. Still, it is a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider if you have any condition that causes neck pain or loss of motion in your neck and cervical spine. He or she can help determine the cause of your pain and prescribe the correct treatment for your condition. Often, a referral to PT can be beneficial for neck pain, and cervical traction may be used during PT.

Cervical traction can be an effective treatment for neck pain and associated neck conditions, like arthritis or disc bulges and herniations. Remember that every person is different, and your physical therapy treatment should be tailored to your specific problems and needs. Your physical therapy program for neck pain should include active treatments like neck exercises and postural correction to help your condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a cervical traction?

    Cervical traction is a technique that gently pulls the head away from the body to stretch the cervical spine. This helps to relieve compressed discs and relieve pinched nerves, muscle spasms, and radiculopathy—pain and tingling that travels down the arms to the hands.

  • Does cervical traction really work?

    Yes, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Research shows many people experience short-term pain relief after cervical traction. Its long-term benefits are unclear.

  • What are the risks of cervical traction?

    Provided you don't have a contraindicated condition, cervical traction is usually safe. While rare, traction-induced spinal cord compromise may occur. Post-cervical traction problems include an increase in peripheral nerve pain, neurological symptoms, and a decrease or disappearance of central pain. If you experience these symptoms, tell your doctor right away.

  • How can I decompress my cervical spine at home?

    Cervical traction can be done at home, under the advice and guidance of your healthcare provider. Your physical therapist can order a cervical traction unit that attaches to a door frame.

    However, do not use a cervical traction device at home until you are properly trained to use it.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. ScienceDirect. Cervical Traction: Physical Modalities.

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine, StatPearls. Cervical Traction.

  3. Yang JD, Tam KW, Huang TW, Huang SW, Liou TH, Chen HC. Intermittent Cervical Traction for Treating Neck Pain: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2017;42(13):959–965. doi:10.1097/BRS.0000000000001948

  4. Garg P. Home Care Neck Traction for a Patient With Neck Pain and Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms: A Case Report. J Chiropr Med. 2019;18(2):127–130. doi:10.1016/j.jcm.2018.11.006

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.