Everything You Need to Know About Cervical Traction Devices

How do cervical traction devices work?

Cervical traction devices are designed to stretch and decompress the cervical spine, or neck, by utilizing mechanical tension. They work by creating tension by creating a pulling force that creates distraction and a gliding effect on the vertebrae. It helps relieve pain by separating the vertebrae, increasing the flexibility of tissues, and relieving pressure on the discs and nerves in the cervical spine.

There are many different types of cervical traction devices, but most consist of having a harness around the head connected to a system of ropes, pulleys, and weights to provide the pulling or distraction force. Other types will utilize air pressure, springs, or the weight of the head to attain the pulling action.

Everything You Need to Know About Cervical Traction Devices

The person is placed in either a sitting position or laying on their back, depending on the mechanism. Once the patient is comfortable and the harness is attached appropriately, the device is adjusted to the appropriate amount of force depending on what the goal of treatment is. The patient is then asked to remain still or perform exercises directed by a medical professional. One type that we use in our clinic is called a Cranial Cradle. It is different than most types in that it does not use a pulling force but rather gravity and the weight of the head to simulate the pull we, as therapists, apply for distraction.

These devices can be used to treat a variety of issues, including neck pain, herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, and cervical radiculopathy. According to recent studies, the greatest benefit is for people with cervical radiculopathy who are experiencing pain in the arm or hand that has not responded to other treatments.

Everything You Need to Know About Cervical Traction Devices cranial cradle

Are cervical traction devices safe to use?

They are safe to use at home but should always be performed under the care of a qualified healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist or doctor. Improper use or incorrect settings of the pull can lead to injury or the exacerbation of existing symptoms. Use of the Cranial Cradle is another safe option because the only requirement is that the person can tolerate lying on their back with their head supported by the device.

Who should use cervical traction devices and who shouldn't?

People with neck pain, herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, or cervical radiculopathy can benefit from using cervical traction. As mentioned above, it has the best response with people experiencing arm pain due to cervical radiculopathy.

The clinical practice guidelines for cervical traction include those who are 55 or older, have a positive shoulder abduction test (meaning they hold their arm over their head, which provides traction or relief of the nerves in the arm), have a positive median nerve tension test, have improved symptoms from a neck distraction test done by a medical practitioner, and have a positive Spurling’s test (where a patient bends their head to the side where their arm pain is and the PT or doctor gently applies a downward force that increases their symptoms).

There are people not appropriate for cervical traction. Those include people who have certain diseases or structural issues, including tumors, malignancy, infection of the spine, inflammation of the spine, or rheumatoid arthritis; vascular issues such as vertebrobasilar insufficiency (VBI); fractures or recent sprains or strains in the neck less than two weeks old; mechanical fusion or instrumentation in the cervical spine; osteoporosis; and pregnancy.

Why have cervical traction devices become so popular recently?

I think these devices have risen in popularity due to the increases in neck pain and postural changes caused by our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. As a society, we have transitioned more to occupations requiring sitting and using computers and cell phones for long periods. This leads to what people have affectionately termed "tech neck." When we engage in these activities and positions for long periods, our body adapts and leads to postural changes.

These include a forward head, rounded shoulders, and increased kyphosis (rounding) of the thoracic spine or upper back. This leads to tightening in the chest muscles, upper back and shoulders, back of the neck, and underneath the skull. In addition, there is lengthening and weakening of muscles in the front of the neck and stress on the joints of the neck and upper back. All these factors combined can lead to neck pain, and people are looking for options to alleviate it.

Everything You Need to Know About Cervical Traction Devices good posture

What should our readers know about cervical traction devices and how they may benefit?

People should know that this is a tool they can use to assist in alleviating their symptoms, but it is not a cure. Combining cervical traction with exercise and proper posture and ergonomics will help correct the postural changes I mentioned before. It is important to remember that our bodies are meant to move.

If you are sitting at a computer for work or for long periods, make sure to shift your position about every 20 to 30 minutes and to get up and walk around for five minutes every hour or two. Having good ergonomics in your equipment is crucial. Make sure your monitor is at head level to avoid leaning your head forward; adjust the height of your chair so your knees are slightly lower than your hips; and adjust your armrests so the elbows are at 90 degrees. In addition, try to bring your phone up to head level to avoid craning your neck and back when using it for extended periods.

Tips for using cervical traction devices: Combining exercise and proper posture for optimal relief from neck pain.

Along with the use of cervical traction and changes in work or home technology stations, retraining the muscles to help support the postural changes is crucial. Exercises that can assist include neck and upper back mobility for the joints and stretching for the tight or short muscles. These can include chin tucks, which also work on strengthening, mobility, and stretching depending on how you are doing them; cat and cow and thread the needle are good mobility exercises.

Effective stretching and strengthening exercises to improve neck and shoulder mobility and flexibility.

Stretching can include your chest muscles, such as the pectoralis minor and major, along with the diaphragm, and the muscles of the upper neck and shoulders, including the scalenes, upper trapezius, and levator scapulae. After performing those, you can follow them up with strengthening of the scapular muscles such as the rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius, and serratus anterior to assist in maintaining the changes produced from the mobility exercises and increasing the flexibility of the muscles through stretching.

Get your cranial cradle or pneumatic cervical traction unit for home here...

See what PubMed  has to say about home cervical traction.

Are you a local of Austin | Westlake Hills suffering from neck pain, cervical radiculopathy, degenerative disc disease, etc.?

Give us a call at 512-215-4227 to set an appointment with our physical therapist.