Lumbar Traction: Uses, Procedure, Side Effects, and More

Does Traction Work for Low Back Pain?

Lumbar traction, often combined with exercise, is a physical therapy treatment that is sometimes used for low back pain or sciatica. The technique stretches the space between the vertebrae in the lower spine, helping to relieve lower back pain.

This article discusses lumbar traction, how it works, and various methods and devices used for lumbar traction. It also takes a look at the research and alternative ways to relieve lower back pain.

A chiropractor adjusts a woman's back
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What Is Lumbar Traction?

Lumbar (low back) traction helps to separate the spaces between your vertebrae, the bones that make up your spine. In theory, slightly separating these bones can help take the pressure off pinched nerves (such as the sciatic nerve) to decrease your pain and improve your mobility.

What the Research Says

A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy (JOSPT) in 2016 calls into question its effectiveness for these conditions. Researchers say lumbar traction with exercise didn't improve outcomes compared to physical therapy (PT) exercises alone.

The study examined a group of 120 people with back pain and nerve root impingement who were randomly selected to undergo either lumbar traction with exercises or simple exercises for pain. The exercises were extension-based, meaning that they focused on bending the spine backward, a movement considered effective for many people with back pain and pinched nerves.

The results indicated that adding lumbar traction to PT exercises offered no significant benefit over extension-based exercise alone for back pain. Lumbar traction may simply be a waste of time (and resources) for back pain involving lumbar nerve root impingement. (Fancy machines like lumbar decompression fall into the category of traction, and so they likely offer no benefit to your back treatment regimen.)

However, a 2022 study found lumbar traction is helpful for people with lower back pain. The study investigated two different lumbar traction techniques and found both variable-force lumbar traction and high-force lumbar traction relieve lower back pain. High-force lumbar traction was found to also reduce functional disability. 

Another study found lumbar traction improves range of motion in the straight leg raise test. The study aimed to examine different forces of traction on prolapsed intervertebral discs, a common cause of lower back pain. While all levels improved range of motion, one-half body-weight traction was associated with the greatest pain relief. 

The Best Treatment for Low Back Pain and Sciatica

If you have low back pain, exercise and postural correction may be your best bet to find relief. Research confirms that PT exercises can help you decrease pain and improve your mobility.

Plus, exercise is an active treatment that you can do just about anywhere. You don't need to rely on going to the physical therapy clinic; you can learn how to treat your condition and then get to it. Your physical therapist can also teach you how to prevent episodes of back pain.

Does it matter which exercise you do? Yes. Research from a 2012 study revealed the importance of centralizing sciatic symptoms during repetitive movements. Centralization is the movement of pain to your spine, and the centralization of pain that occurs as you exercise is a good sign. Your McKenzie-trained physical therapist can tell you more.

So, starting an exercise program that centralizes your symptoms if you have spinal pain can help you get back to your normal lifestyle quickly and safely. Check in with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program for your back.

If you have low back pain or sciatica, you may benefit from various treatments from your physical therapist. If your PT offers you lumbar traction for your back pain, the results of this study indicate that it may not really be necessary. You should discuss your concerns with your therapist and perhaps see if there are any alternative treatments for you.

Exercise should be one of the main tools you use to treat and prevent your back pain. Your physical therapist is a movement expert who can show you which exercises are best for your condition. So, it may be a good idea to ditch the lumbar traction and get your back moving to help you quickly and safely return to your optimal level of activity.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is lumbar traction used for?

    Lumbar traction is commonly used to relieve lower back pain and improve range of motion. The technique stretches the lower back to increase space between vertebrae, helping to alleviate pinched nerves and problems associated with disc disorders.

  • How is lumbar traction done?

    Lumbar traction can be performed in a few different ways. One of the most common ways is to lay faced down on a traction table. The table is divided in two sections that are separate. The physician may or may not strap your legs to the table before tilting and rotating the lower half of the table to stretch the lower back. 

  • Is lumbar traction safe for disc bulges?

    Yes, lumbar traction is commonly used to treat disc bulges and herniated discs. Research shows it can help to relieve pain and stiffness.

  • Is traction good for your back?

    If you have lower back pain, traction can help to relieve pain and stiffness and improve your range of motion. Traction typically feels good, like a gentle stretch of your lower back.

7 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. Cheng YH, Hsu CY, Lin YN. The effect of mechanical traction on low back pain in patients with herniated intervertebral disks: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Clin Rehabil. 2020;34(1):13-22. doi:10.1177/0269215519872528

  2. 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;46(3):144-154. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2016.6238

  3. 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;46(3):144-154. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2016.6238

  4. Masood Z, Khan AA, Ayyub A, Shakeel R. Effect of lumbar traction on discogenic low back pain using variable forces. J Pak Med Assoc. 2022;72(3):483–6. doi:10.47391/JPMA.453

  5. Kumari A, Quddus N, Meena PR, Alghadir AH, Khan M. Effects of one-fifth, one-third, and one-half of the bodyweight lumbar traction on the straight leg raise test and pain in prolapsed intervertebral disc patients: a randomized controlled trial. Biomed Res Int. 2021;2021:2561502. doi:10.1155/2021/2561502

  6. Slomski A. Early physical therapy relieves sciatica disability and pain. JAMA. 2020;324(24):2476. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.24673

  7. Albert HB, Hauge E, Manniche C. Centralization in patients with sciatica: are pain responses to repeated movement and positioning associated with outcome or types of disc lesions? Eur Spine J. 2012;21(4):630-636. doi: 10.1007/s00586-011-2018-9

Additional Reading

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