Cervical traction, or use of a neck traction device, has been around for centuries. As a bystander the traditional devices can look torturous and uncomfortable. However, the reality is that they can be a great tool for treating generalized neck pain. If you have been in a chiropractic or physical therapy office there is a good chance you've seen the motorized (usually electric) version of these devices. The good news is that there are some simple hacks that can help you bring the benefits of a neck traction device to the comfort of your own home.
What exactly is a neck traction device?
Neck traction involves being in a seated or lying position while gentle pressure is applied at the base of the skull to create a "lifting" motion of the head away from the body and shoulders. Most users report a sensation of stretching throughout the neck muscles and un-weighting of the head as it is gently lifted upward. Neck traction can be used statically with a prolonged hold in one specific position or can be used intermittently with a pre-selected amount of on and off time (for example 30 seconds stretch, 10 seconds rest for 10 minutes). One option is not better than the other so it is up to patient tolerance and comfort.
There are several theories surrounding how these devices work to provide relief from neck pain.
- The spine discs and other spine joints (i.e. facet joints) themselves are being gently separated. This can help provide better alignment of the neck and open up more space for the spinal cord and nerve roots throughout the neck that may be pinched.
- The simple mechanical benefits of stretching the neck provide relaxation and increase blood flow to promote healing to injured areas.
What neck problems can a neck traction device help with?
Use of traction is a great adjunct for treating neck pain. Although the research really only shows short terms benefits, it can help you on your road to recovery quicker if combined with other treatments such as massage, exercise, and posture training.
Common neck issues a neck traction device can help with include:
- Neck arthritis
- Muscle strains and spasms
- Cervical radiculopathy (symptoms that are causing pain, numbness, tingling into one or both arms)
- Insidious (no specific cause or underlying issues) neck pain
When you should see a medical professional first:
- Severe neck pain
- Pain the worsens with a trial of traction
- Poorly managed high blood pressure
- Myelopathy (pinching of the spinal cord itself) causing symptoms such as poor balance
- Osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) or a tumor in the neck
- Extreme instability of the neck from an injury
- If unsure, always consult with a trusted professional first
Different types of neck traction devices.
- Manual traction. This method involves the help of a health practitioner. Either in a seated or lying position, the professional will position their hands in a way to provides gentle lifting and stretching of the neck. Typically, this should only be done by a professional that understands neck pathology and anatomy. However, they may be able to train a friend or family member if you find this option of great benefit.
- Mechanical traction. These devices can be either electrical or pneumatic (like a bike pump). It involves lying on the back with the head and neck strapped into the device. The amount of tension, time and angle of the neck can all be adjusted to get the best result. These are common in medical offices under professional supervision. If it works well for you, they may prescribe a pneumatic home unit for you to use on your own with proper instruction for home use.
- Gravity assisted. Over the door traction is a simple unit that uses a pulley system and weight (usually water or sand). The head is put in straps while in a seated to allow the weight of the device to gently pull up on the neck. This can be bothersome if you have any jaw issues because of the placement of the straps. It's recommended to start with low weight and gradually progress as comfortable. It is important to mention that you must be able to relax during any type of traction treatment, which is particularly hard with this method.
- Gentler home options. Though self-treating at home without assistance will result in a lower grade stretch than the options above, it can be a great cost effective approach. Here are some simple positions you can try today:
- All you need is a rolled up hand towel or two tennis balls (taped together or in a sock). Lying on the floor place the towel or balls at the base of the skull (not in the curve of the neck). Completely relax your body as you let the chin fall toward the chest (you can gently and actively tuck the chin to increase the stretch if needed). You try holding for 1-2 minutes or intermittently holding 10 seconds on 10 seconds off. See what feels good.
- Sitting relaxed and with good posture bring one hand to base of your skull. Similar to the above option, gently pull the chin toward your chest (without actually bending the entire neck) until a stretch is felt in the back of the head. Again, play with the amount of stretch time. You can bias one side with this position also by pulling at a slight diagonal.
Having a neck traction device can be a great option if you suffer from neck pain. Having a variety of options to help you heal can decrease recovery time and/or better manage your symptoms to improve your quality of life. Having these options can get you back to full life engagement!