What is cervical traction?
Cervical traction is a treatment for neck pain that involves lightly pulling on your head to create space between the bones in your neck (your cervical vertebrae). You might see it referred to as spinal traction.
Cervical traction can be done either by your healthcare provider or by yourself at home. It can be done manually (by hand) or with a cervical traction device. No matter how it’s applied, cervical traction creates additional space between the vertebrae in your neck to reduce pressure and tension. It’s used to relieve symptoms like pain from a variety of conditions and issues.
Segments of the spine
Your spine is divided into three main sections:
- Cervical spine: Your neck.
- Thoracic spine: The section of your spine in your upper back that runs from the bottom of your neck to the bottom of your ribs.
- Lumbar spine: Your lower back.
Cervical traction gently pulls apart the vertebrae in your cervical spine.
What does cervical traction treat?
Cervical traction is used to treat lots of conditions that cause neck and back pain. In addition to treating conditions that affect your vertebrae, it can treat issues with nerves and muscles around your spine, too.
Cervical traction can be used to treat temporary conditions, including:
Your healthcare provider might use cervical traction to treat longer-term issues that develop over time, including:
What happens before cervical traction?
Your healthcare provider will diagnose an issue or condition cervical traction can treat before they recommend it. You might need it after a specific injury (like a fractured spine), or it could help with the pain of a longer-term spinal issue like cervical stenosis. Before you receive cervical traction, they’ll perform a physical exam to make sure you’re a good candidate for it.
No matter why you need cervical traction, there’s nothing you need to do beforehand. You’ll either receive it at your healthcare provider’s office, as part of a physical therapy session or you’ll do it to yourself at home.
How does cervical traction work?
There are two types of cervical traction:
- Manual cervical traction: Your healthcare provider will hold your head in their hands and lightly pull it away from your body. They’ll usually pull with your neck in different positions or different amounts of bend.
- Mechanical cervical traction: You’ll lie down and your healthcare provider will put your head and neck in cervical traction device. There are a few types of devices they might use, but all of them have a mechanism to apply gentle, even pulling on your head to create space in your neck. Mechanical cervical traction can usually last longer than manual cervical traction because the device doesn’t require any physical exertion from your healthcare provider.
Risks / Benefits
What are the advantages of cervical traction?
Cervical traction is easy to perform, and — if it works for you — can deliver quick symptom relief. People who benefit from cervical traction often have an instant improvement in their neck pain after a few treatments. Some of the most common benefits include:
- Reduced pain.
- Reduced stiffness and tension in your neck muscles.
- More flexibility in the muscles along your cervical spine.
Some studies have found that in addition to stretches and other physical therapy exercises, cervical traction can improve your range of motion (how far you can move your neck). However, this might not be true for everyone.
What are the risks of cervical traction?
Cervical traction has very few risks. No matter which kind of traction you use, you shouldn’t put enough pressure on your neck to hurt it.
Some people shouldn’t receive cervical traction, including people who are:
- Anxious about being restrained or have claustrophobia.
- Have had a cervical fusion surgery in the past.
Any health condition that weakens your bones or that can affect your spinal cord might make cervical traction unsafe for you, including:
- Spinal cord tumors.
- Untreated high blood pressure (hypertension).
Talk to your healthcare provider about any risk factors you have before starting cervical traction. Follow all the instructions and read all the safety warnings before using an at-home cervical traction device for the first time.
There haven’t been many studies on cervical traction’s long-term benefits. This means that even if it improves your pain and other symptoms, there’s a chance they might come back in the future, or that the symptom relief may only be temporary.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I see my healthcare provider?
Talk to your healthcare provider before using a cervical traction device at home. Visit them if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- New pain or pain that’s getting worse.
- Numbness or tingling in your limbs, hands or toes.
- Changes in your vision.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cervical traction is a quick, easy way to treat neck pain. It might not work for everyone, but if it does improve your symptoms, you can do it at home as often as your healthcare provider suggests.
Never start cervical traction or any other treatment on your head, neck, or spine without first talking to your healthcare provider. They’ll recommend a technique that fits your unique needs and suggest which type of cervical traction device you should buy. Usually, a trial under physical therapy supervision is done first.
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