Spinal Traction, a Secret Sauce to Relieve Lower Back Pain

In US, spinal traction (also called spinal decompression) is usually provided by the physical therapists, chiropractors, or spine specialists on a traction table. It is usually provided in 10 to 15 minutes each time and two to three times a week. The maximum applied weight is about one fifth of the body weight. According to article What is Spinal Traction? in about.com, the benefit of traction includes:

  • Traction applies a force that draws two adjacent bones apart from each other in order to increase their shared joint space.
  • Traction also stretches the soft tissue that surrounds the joint.
  • In the spine, the elongation provided by traction allows facet joints to slide, increases circulation and relieves pressure on the spinal cord, its blood vessels and nerve roots.
  • The improved circulation has an added, indirect benefit of decreasing chemicals in damaged tissues brought about by inflammation.
  • The movement at the joints may also contribute to the decrease of nervous excitability, which is another source of pain.

In China, spinal traction is considered the main technique to speed up the effect of lying flat. In addition to the above benefits, traction can provide a negative pressure on the disc so that the nucleus pulposus leaked out of the disc may be sucked back into the disc. This additional benefit is due to the more aggressive approach of the Chinese doctors. According to an article in Baidu knowledge base (a Chinese version of wikipedia), it is effective for more than half of the patients, and the spinal traction can be applied using two methods:

  • Intermittent traction: Traction repeatedly pulls for seven seconds and relaxes for fifteen seconds. The time of traction is twenty to thirty minutes. The starting weight is a quarter of the body weight, and may increase to half of the body weight.
  • Semi-continuous traction: Traction is applied continuously for thirty minutes to two hours. Relax for a few minutes and repeat. The time of traction is six to eight hours. The starting weight is six kilograms, and may increase to a third of the body weight.

I have built a traction equipment at my home myself. Basically I punch two holes in the bottom part of a back support brace and tie two ropes to it. The other side of the two ropes are tied to grip plate for weight lifting. The rope goes over a self-built pulley, which is attached to the end of my bed. Then I lie in bed and wear the back support brace and pulls the grip plate above the ground. My waist is then pulled by the weight of the grip plate. Using this equipment, I did traction at least two hours everyday and the weight was 40% of my body weight.Warning: while doing traction, it is important to align the spine straight. One cannot twist the spine while on traction.

The Chinese doctors consider it important to do spinal traction together with lying flat. The reason is straightforward:

Spinal traction create a negative pressure on the discs so that the nucleus pulposus is sucked back into the disc. It does no good to stand up after the traction to press the disc again to squeeze the nucleus pulposus out again. After traction, it is important to continue lying flat for an hour or two before getting up, if necessary. It is best to do traction and then lie in bed until the disc tear is sealed with a scar. It is not reasonable sometimes, but the patients need to reduce the frequency and time of being up straight.

Why is the traction considered not effective using the US method? My personal experience in the rehabilitation center also confirmed it. However, the same traction applied using the Chinese method works on a lot of people, including me. I consider the more aggressive and consistent treatment plan in China makes the difference. In China the traction is applied with more weight, longer time, and most importantly, applied together with lying flat.

A word of caution: spinal traction is not suitable for everyone. For example, patients with unstable spine cannot use traction. Please always consult the physician before making any decision.

However, spinal traction does not actually require the patient to lie down on a specialized traction table. I have made a traction equipment myself at home. But the key of traction is to lengthen the spine to decompress the spine. Thus, equipments like Pull up bar or power tower may also do the trick. You just get hung up with feet above the ground and relax your back, the weight of your legs pulls your spine and serves the same purpose. I have a power tower in my home so I get hung once a while. It is Body Vision PT600 Power Tower, if you care.

Another equipment that serves the same purpose as traction is inversion table. It is similar to the Pull up bar to hang people up, just to hang people up side down. This way, the weight of the upper body is used to extend the spine, which is more than 40% of the total body weight. See, even this method is more aggressive than the traction weight guideline in US. Because people don't need to hold up the weight using arms, this method is easier for most people. They can do traction for longer period of time without feeling tired.

These are the more serious skeletal traction devices. Another traction method is called skin traction. As the name indicates, it pulls the skin and the skin pulls the spine. The pull strength is much lighter. I describe them in detail here.