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Cervical Traction for Neck Pain

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Updated March 02, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Home cervical traction unit

Cervical traction may be used for neck pain caused by arthritic joints or bulging discs.

© Brett Sears, 2011

If you have neck pain, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist 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 to one side of your neck, or pain in one or both of your shoulder blades. Occasionally, symptoms coming from your neck may be felt as 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 doctor 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 for your neck condition. 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:

How is Cervical Traction Applied?

There are many different ways to apply cervical traction to the neck. Be sure to discuss the best way for you to use neck traction with your physical therapist.

Manual Cervical Traction. This type of traction is performed by your physical therapist, who holds your neck and head in his 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 sand bag, or a water bag that's attached to the opposite end of the rope.

In general, a pulling force of about 20 pounds should be used when starting neck traction. 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, you must 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 physical therapist 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.

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.

Source: Prentice, W. (1998). Therapeutic modalities for allied health professionals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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