Lateral traction

Written by Erica Roth | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Lateral Traction?

Lateral traction moves part of your body, such as your leg, slightly to the side to correct a dislocation. A system of weights and tension holds your body part in place as a form of orthopedic treatment, a form of treatment for correcting musculoskeletal injuries or problems. Lateral traction is usually performed in a physical therapy or hospital setting with specialized equipment.

Lateral traction is also commonly referred to as “traction” or “orthopedic traction.” Traction is used to help treat bulging disks in the back or neck, and other orthopedic injuries, such as dislocated joints or broken bones.

Lateral traction can relieve pain associated with joint dislocation and radiculopathy. Radiculopathy refers to the numbness, tingling, or pain that occurs along the course of a nerve when the nerve is compressed in the spine. People with herniated or slipped disks in their back often suffer from radiculopathy in the legs. Pinched or compressed nerves in the neck can produce radiculopathy in the arms.

How Does Lateral Traction Work?

Lateral traction works by applying force to an area of the body using weights or pulleys. The amount of force is usually calculated using your body weight as a guide. Your doctor or physical therapist will place a certain amount of weight per each pound of your body weight. The actual numbers will vary depending on your medical condition and treatment.

The force of the traction may remain constant for a specified period of time. For example, your doctor might place you in lateral traction for several days when you break your arm. The tension holds the bones in the correct position, and the immobility allows your arm and elbow swelling to go down.

Other types of lateral traction are more effective when the tension is applied to your body in small doses on an intermittent basis. For example, you might undergo traction several times a week if you have back problems. In these cases, sessions are usually short, lasting less than an hour each. Traction is not applied constantly throughout the whole session. The tension may be turned on for a minute at a time with a 15-second break.

Lateral Traction Procedure

Traction is applied through a series of straps and pulleys. The traction machine may be automated. Automated traction systems use pneumatic pumps and pulleys to apply tension.

You will lie on a bed or exam table during the treatment. An area of your body, such as your leg, pelvis, or neck, will be affixed with straps that attach to the traction machine with hooks. The doctor or physical therapist will set the machine to the appropriate weight and time increments and the machine works on its own.

Some forms of lateral traction used to treat bone breaks and dislocations function manually with weights and pulleys. The affected body part is strapped into a therapeutic position and is held in place with poles or rods attached to your bed.

Traction should not hurt, although the injury it treats will likely be painful. You will feel the pull of the weight, which may be uncomfortable until you are used to the sensation.

You are fully awake while undergoing traction. Try to relax during the treatment. Many people can read or carry on conversations during traction without a problem.

Risks of Traction

Lateral traction poses very little risk as a medical treatment. The American Pain Society suggests that heavy traction that uses a very high percentage of your body weight may cause nerve impingement in some people. Tension should be kept between 25 and 50 percent of your body weight to remain effective without risk of further injury.


Lateral traction is an effective treatment for orthopedic injuries. In many people, traction can help heal and reduce pain without the need for surgery.

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Show Sources

  • Lateral traction. (n.d.). National Library of Medicine – National Health Institutes. Retrieved June 6, 2012, from
  • Young, I.A., Michener, L.A., Cleland, J.A., Aguilera, A.J., Snyder, A.R. (2009, May 21). Manual Therapy, Exercise, and Traction for Patients With Cervical Radiculopathy: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Physical Therapy, 89(7), 632-642. doi:10.2522/ptj.20080283

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