Written by Debra Stang | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Traction?

In medical terminology, traction refers to the practice of exerting a slow, gentle pull on a fractured or dislocated body part. The purpose is to guide the part back into place and to hold it steady. Traction may also be used to stretch the neck and prevent painful muscle spasms. Traction is often accomplished using ropes, pulleys, and even the weight of the patient’s own body.

Types of Skeletal Traction and Skin Traction

Skeletal traction refers to placing a pin in the fractured bone. This is usually done under general anesthetic or a spinal block, so you won’t feel any pain during the procedure. Weights are then applied to the pin, and you are placed in a special bed to encourage traction, and also to make it easier for the nurses to care for you. Skeletal traction is most commonly used to treat fractures of the femur (thigh bone).

Skin traction is far less invasive. It involves applying traction tapes to your skin directly below the fracture. The traction, or pull, is usually restricted to less than 10 percent of your body weight. Higher percentages than that do not yield faster results, but they may cause irritation and damage to the skin. Skin traction is rarely a final treatment. Instead, it is a way to stabilize a broken bone until doctors can agree on the final treatment plan (Buckley).

Cervical Traction

Cervical traction can be used in two ways. First, it can stretch the muscles in your neck to ease or prevent muscle spasms. It can also be used to bring your spine into alignment and immobilize it after an injury to your neck. If you are receiving this kind of traction, your neck will be encircled by a metal brace that is then attached to a body harness, to weights, or to your skull. You will receive general anesthetic before a pin is placed in your skull. This means you will be asleep through the entire procedure and may not have much memory of it when you awaken. In some cases, a rigid neck collar can be used to stabilize your head and neck sufficiently.

Traction Is Falling out of Favor

Traction used to be considered state-of-the-art treatment. Now, however, surgical techniques have advanced to the point that a complex fracture that used to take months to coax back into place can be corrected with a few hours of surgery. Furthermore, surgeons following patient outcomes noted that patients who got out of bed and moved around as soon as possible after their injuries did better than patients who were restricted to bed. Traction does not allow this kind of early movement to occur (OrthoInfo).

Traction AfterCare

If you have been in traction for a fractured bone or for neck problems, your doctor will probably suggest an inpatient or an outpatient treatment program of physical and occupational therapy to help you regain your strength and relearn skills that may have been compromised by your injury. Therapists can also teach you new skills to compensate for pain, weakness, or paralysis as a result of being injured. Your first few days out of traction may be a tough time. If you’ve spent a lot of time in bed, your muscles are likely to be weak. Moving around too much may make you tired, but it is important to stick with any rehabilitation program so that you can make the best recovery possible.

What Are the Risks of Traction?

Skeletal traction involves minor surgery. All surgery carries the risk of an adverse effect from the anesthesia, bleeding, pain, and damage to surrounding tissue.

Other risks include pain, infection at the pin sites, and depression at the prospect of having to spend days or longer immobilized. Talk to your doctor if your pain is not managed by your current medications, if the skin at your pin sites becomes pink, hot, and swollen, or if you are feeling sad and hopeless.

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