Spine Injury and Facet Joint Traction for Your Spine

A woman getting her spine decompressed
Vladimir Zapletin / Getty Images

Spinal traction is a modality (treatment activity) sometimes given by physical therapists, chiropractors and other spine specialists to their patients. The purpose of traction is to apply a force that draws two adjacent bones away from each other in order to make more room between them. Two adjacent bones plus the space between them is known as a spinal segment.

The neck and low back are the most common areas of the spine to receive traction. It is given manually, by means of a device or via positioning.  

Why is traction a good thing? The theory goes that with so many intricate structures—bone, nerves, ligaments, discs–in a small but highly movable area the typical spinal segment, it's easy for things to get jammed up. And when they do, it increases the risk for pressure on nervous tissue, which, in turn, may give you pain and/or other symptoms.

The purpose of traction is to "unjam" so to speak, the space between these interrelating structures and to give the nerves a chance to function unimpeded.

A Jan 2018 review of studies published in the journal Physical Therapy fund that both mechanical and manual traction for cervical radiculopathy—in combination with other commonly given physical therapy treatments—may help with pain reduction and physical functioning. That said, the researchers conclude that the effects of traction are more pronounced for pain relief than they are for decreasing disability or increasing functioning.

Who Benefits From Spinal Traction?

Traction is given to people with low back pain and neck pain for relief of symptoms, including radiculopathy symptoms. Symptoms of radiculopathy include pain, weakness, numbness and/or electrical feelings that go down one leg or one arm, and are caused by irritation to one or more spinal nerve roots.

It is also given to people with spinal stenosis or spondylosis. The thinking here is that making space around intervertebral foramen increases the chance for nerves to pass through that area unimpeded, and therefore without irritation. (The intervertebral foramen are holes through which spinal nerves pass on their way out to the rest of the body.)

How Is Spinal Traction Given?

As mentioned above, traction may be given by a machine, or manually (as when a therapist gives you treatment with their hands.)

Spinal traction machines run continuously for up to 10 minutes at a time, or intermittently for up to 15 minutes. When spinal traction is given by machine, your chiropractor or therapist will hook you up to the device, and keep you on it for 10 minutes if the machine is set to run continuously, or up to 15 minutes for intermittently delivered traction.

And weights may be used to provide force; in this case, you'll probably be started with light weights, and over time increase to about 15 pounds.

The goal is to help you relax. If, instead, your traction treatment tenses you up, be sure to say something about it to your practitioner.

As technology advances, more traction machines are computer operated. (An example is the Triton DTS from Chattanooga. Practitioners who give computerized spinal traction to their patients claim the electronic approach allows them to more closely match the direction of motion applied during treatment to their patient's specific spinal problem.

When spinal traction is given manually it will likely be done by physical therapists, massage therapists, and bodyworkers. Generally, this is the only type of traction given to people with acute neck or back pain.

Spinal Traction Side Effects

Spinal traction does not have many associated side effects. The few that may occur include injury to tissue, nausea, fainting or headache.

Spine Injury and Facet Joint Traction

Joint elongation provided by traction to the spine allows the facets, which are part of each spinal bone located in the back, to slide over one another. Elongation also might increase circulation and relieve pressure on the spinal cord, including its blood vessels and nerve roots.

The improved circulation afforded by spinal traction may offer another, more indirect benefit: Decreasing chemicals due to inflammation in damaged tissues. Not only that, but the increased joint motion may contribute to pain relief by calming the activity of your nerves.

A spinal traction treatment may help elongate the muscles that attach to the joints, as well. This is one more way it may help your back muscles release out of spasm.

Does It Really Work?

Although many people can attest to the fact that traction on the spine feels good, a 2013 review of medical literature by the Cochrane Back Group found that it has little or no effect on pain, ability to function, overall improvement or the speed at which you can return to work after a low back injury. They say this is true whether traction is the only treatment, or if it is combined with other therapies. The researchers note a lot of bias and small numbers of participants in the studies they evaluated.

Similarly, in a 2011 review also conducted by the Cochrane Back Group revealed no evidence, i.e., neither for nor against—this therapy. 

Just the same, the use of traction is alive and well in chiropractic and physical therapy offices as an adjunct treatment.

And, as long as their patients report positive experiences, manual and massage therapists are not likely to give up the art of hands-on spinal traction anytime soon.

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