In the medical field, traction refers to the practice of slowly and gently pulling on a fractured or dislocated body part. It’s often done using ropes, pulleys, and weights. These tools help apply force to the tissues surrounding the damaged area.
The purpose of traction is to guide the body part back into place and hold it steady. Traction may be used to:
- stabilize and realign bone fractures, such as a broken arm or leg
- help reduce the pain of a fracture before surgery
- treat bone deformities caused by certain conditions, such as scoliosis
- correct stiff and constricted muscles, joints, tendons, or skin
- stretch the neck and prevent painful muscle spasms
The two main types of traction are skeletal traction and skin traction. The type of traction used will depend on the location and the nature of the problem.
Skeletal traction involves placing a pin, wire, or screw in the fractured bone. After one of these devices has been inserted, weights are attached to it so the bone can be pulled into the correct position. This type of surgery may be done using a general, spinal, or local anesthetic to keep you from feeling pain during the procedure.
The amount of time needed to perform skeletal traction will depend on whether it’s a preparation for a more definitive procedure or the only surgery that’ll be done to allow the bone to heal.
Skeletal traction is most commonly used to treat fractures of the femur, or thighbone. It’s also the preferred method when greater force needs to be applied to the affected area. The force is directly applied to the bone, which means more weight can be added with less risk of damaging the surrounding soft tissues.
Skin traction is far less invasive than skeletal traction. It involves applying splints, bandages, or adhesive tapes to the skin directly below the fracture. Once the material has been applied, weights are fastened to it. The affected body part is then pulled into the right position using a pulley system attached to the hospital bed.
Skin traction is used when the soft tissues, such as the muscles and tendons, need to be repaired. Less force is applied during skin traction to avoid irritating or damaging the skin and other soft tissues. Skin traction is rarely the only treatment needed. Instead, it’s usually used as a temporary way to stabilize a broken bone until the definitive surgery is performed.
During cervical traction, a metal brace is placed around your neck. The brace is then attached to a body harness or weights, which are used to help correct the affected area. Cervical traction is performed using a general anesthetic, so you’ll be asleep throughout the entire procedure.
Cervical traction might be used in two different situations. First, it may be done to gently stretch the neck muscles so muscle spasms can be relieved or prevented. It may also be performed to immobilize the spine after a neck injury.
If you’re treated with traction, you’ll probably need to participate in an inpatient or an outpatient treatment program. These programs often consist of physical and occupational therapy to help you regain your strength and relearn skills that may have been affected by your injury. A therapist can also teach you new skills to compensate for any pain, weakness, or paralysis you may have experienced as a result of being injured.
The first few days after traction is performed can be difficult. The muscles are often weak since you must spend a lot of time in bed after traction is performed. Moving around and walking may be challenging and can make you tired. However, it’s important to stick with any rehabilitation program so that you can improve your chances of making a complete recovery.
There are risks involved in all surgical procedures. These risks include:
- an adverse reaction to the anesthesia
- excessive bleeding
- an infection of the pin site
- damage to the surrounding tissue
- nerve injury or vascular injury from too much weight being applied
It’s important to contact your doctor if:
- the prescribed medications aren’t relieving your pain
- the skin around the pin site becomes red, hot, or swollen
- there’s drainage
Traction used to be considered a state-of-the-art treatment. In recent years, however, other surgical techniques have become more advanced and more effective in correcting fractures, damaged muscles, and spinal conditions. Traction also doesn’t allow for much movement after surgery, so the recovery time is often much longer. Today, it’s used primarily as a temporary measure until the definitive procedure is done. Traction saved many lives during World War II by allowing soldiers to be transported safely without injury to their surrounding tissues.
However, traction can be beneficial in treating certain conditions. It’s very effective in providing temporary pain relief in the early stages of treatment after trauma.
You and your doctor can discuss whether traction is the best option for your particular condition.