Lumbar Traction for Back Pain

A chiropractor adjusts a woman's back.
A chiropractor adjusts a woman's back. BanksPhotos/E+/Getty Images

Lumbar traction, often combined with exercise, is a physical therapy treatment that is sometimes used for low back pain or sciatica.

However, research published 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.

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.

It sounds like a logical approach to the problem, but research and logic don't appear to agree.

What Does the Research Show About Lumbar Traction?

A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy (JOSPT) examined the effect of adding lumbar traction to an extension-based exercise program for back pain.

A group of 120 people with back pain and nerve root impingement was 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.)

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. A 2004 study found that if you do an exercise that centralizes your symptoms, you can realize rapid and lasting relief from your back pain. (Centralization is the movement of pain to your spine, and 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 doctor 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.

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