Traction is the use of a pulling force to treat muscle and skeleton disorders.
Traction is usually applied to the arms and legs, the neck, the backbone, or the pelvis. It is used to treat fractures, dislocations, and long-duration muscle spasms, and to prevent or correct deformities. Traction can either be short-term, as at an accident scene, or long-term, when it is used in a hospital setting.
Traction serves several purposes:
- it aligns the ends of a fracture by pulling the limb into a straight position
- it ends muscle spasm
- it relieves pain
- it takes the pressure off the bone ends by relaxing the muscle
There are two main types of traction: skin traction and skeletal traction. Within these types, many specialized forms of traction have been developed to address problems in particular parts of the body. The application of traction is an exacting technique that requires training and experience, since incorrectly applied traction can cause harm.
Positioning the extremity so that the angle of pull brings the ends of the fracture together is essential. Elaborate methods of weights, counterweights, and pulleys have been developed to provide the appropriate force while keeping the bones aligned and preventing muscle spasm. The patient's age, weight, and medical condition are all taken into account when deciding on the type and degree of traction.
People who are suffering from skin disorders or who are allergic to tape should not undergo skin traction, because the application of traction will aggravate their condition. Likewise, circulatory disorders or varicose veins can be aggravated by skin traction. People with an inflammation of the bone (osteomyelitis) should not undergo skeletal traction.
Skin traction uses five- to seven-pound weights attached to the skin to indirectly apply the necessary pulling force on the bone. If traction is temporary, or if only a light or discontinuous force is needed, then skin traction is the preferred treatment. Because the procedure is not invasive, it is usually performed in a hospital bed.
Weights are attached either through adhesive or non-adhesive tape, or with straps, boots, or cuffs. Care must be taken to keep the straps or tape loose enough to prevent swelling and allow good circulation to the part of the limb beyond the spot where the traction is applied. The amount of weight that can be applied through skin traction is limited because excessive weight will irritate the skin and cause it to slough off.
Specialized forms of skin traction have been developed to address specific problems. Dunlop's traction is used on children with certain fractures of the upper arm, when the arm must be kept in a flexed position to prevent problems with the circulation and nerves around the elbow. Pelvic traction is applied to the lower spine, with a belt around the waist. Buck's skin traction is used to treat knee injuries other than fractures. The purpose of this traction is to stabilize the knee and reduce muscle spasm.
Skeletal traction is performed when more pulling force is needed than can be withstood by skin traction; or when the part of the body needing traction is positioned so that skin traction is impossible. Skeletal traction uses weights of 25-40 pounds.
Skeletal traction requires the placement of tongs, pins, or screws into the bone so that the weight is applied directly to the bone. This is an invasive procedure that is done in an operating room under general, regional, or local anesthesia.
Correct placement of the pins is essential to the success of the traction. The pin can be kept in place several months, and must be kept clean to prevent infection. Once the hardware is in place, pulleys and weights are attached to wires to provide the proper pull and alignment on the affected part.
Specialized forms of skeletal traction include cervical traction used for fractures of the neck vertebrae; over-head arm traction used for certain types of upper arm fractures; and tibia pin traction used for some fractures of the femur, hip, or pelvis.
X rays are done prior to the application of both forms of traction, and may be repeated during treatment to assure that the affected parts are staying in alignment
and healing properly. Since the insertion of the anchoring devices in skeletal traction is a surgical procedure, standard preoperative blood and urine testing are done, and the patient may meet with an anesthesiologist to discuss any health conditions that might affect the administration of anesthesia.
Aftercare for skin traction involves making sure the limb stays aligned, and caring for the skin so that it does not become sore and irritated. The patient should also be alert to any swelling or tingling in the limb that would suggest that the limb has been wrapped too tightly.
Aftercare for skeletal traction is more complex. The patient is likely to be immobile for an extended period. Deep breathing exercises are taught so that respiratory function is maintained during this time of little activity. Patients are also encouraged to do range-of motion exercises with the unaffected parts of the body. The patient is taught how to use a trapeze (an overhead support bar) to shift on and off a bedpan, since it is not possible to get up to use the toilet. In serious injuries, traction may be continued for several months until healing is complete.
The main risks associated with skin traction are that the traction will be applied incorrectly and cause harm, or that the skin will become irritated. There are more risks associated with skeletal traction. Bone inflammation may occur in response to the introduction of foreign material into the body. Infection can occur at the pin sites. If caught early, infection can be treated with antibiotics, but if severe, it may require removal of the pin.
Both types of traction have complications associated with long periods of immobility. These include the development of bed sores, reduced respiratory function, urinary problems, and circulatory problems. Occasionally, fractures fail to heal. Being confined to traction for a long period can take a an emotional toll on the patient, also.
When correctly applied, traction generally produces very good, if slow, results.
Rodrigo, Juan J. "Traction." In Orthopaedic Surgery: Basic Science and Clinical Science. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1986.
"Traction." In Everything You Need to Know About Medical Treatments. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Corp., 1996.