Traction: useful or not?

I use traction sparingly. It is a last resort if the patient is going to have a surgery. If I have tried everything in my power and knowledge to help a patient, and the patient continues to not improve, then traction it is. It is my Hail Mary.

  1. “Physical therapists may choose from myriad intervention options for LBP, but the effectivenss of many of these options is questionable”

Do you feel good about coming to therapy yet? An awesome question to ask your therapists is; “What does the research say about xyz?” or better yet “Does the research support xyz for my condition?”

It’s funny, in school we all learn that ultrasound brings more blood flow to an area…SO FRIGGIN WHAT? Does that blood flow actually fix me? Not really, but it brings more blood flow! That’s an expensive transportation of blood. Do you know what else brings more blood flow…Hickies. That brings more blood flow. Ask your therapists to suck on your skin for a while to see if that will also bring more blood flow. It will probably cost you a little more for that service though…I digress. There is not much, if any, CURRENT research that supports the use of ultrasound for back pain. If your therapist tells you that ultrasound will help, ask how? If they tell you the blood flow thing…ask them to pucker up.

  1. “Authorities have recommended traction for conditions including protruding Intervertebral discs, spinal muscle spasm, and general pain and stiffness”

This is what I learned when I was in school. Seems archaic that we were taking general recommendations from “authorities” to try to fix the second largest complaint to the common cold. At least research has advanced from the opinion of authorities.

  1. “several systematic reviews and clinical guidelines conclude that the effectiveness of traction is limited…little evidence to recommend traction…clinically important benefits of lumbar traction were demonstrated for neither acute nor chronic back LBP…traction should not be used…41% of the physical therapists in the UK used traction”

Boy can those statements be any stronger. Traction should not be used because it is not very effective for low back pain (LBP). Now if you want to use traction because it makes you feel better, then go ahead. Sugar pills work for some people also. (Not trying to come across as sarcastic, but I’m sure it sounds that way). If you have preference for a specific intervention, then that intervention may be likely to help you. I have a patient that believes that ultrasound of the back muscles helps. No matter how much education I have provided, I’d be better off talking to the wall. Needless to say, we have a great conversation during the ultrasound, while the patient is propped up on his elbows and lying on his belly. For those that know, these positions can help/fix up to 65% of back pain patients.

  1. “Our findings suggest that a majority of APTA Orthopaedic Section members use traction…In contrast, approximately one third of respondents indicated that they would use tractions for patients in a manner that is contrary to that classification”

There is a clinical prediction rule in the derivation (creation) phase that indicates a certain type of patient may benefit from traction. This is less than 10% of the patients in the clinic. This rule has not been replicated yet, so it is more like an educated guess at this point. Other research has reported the above, in which traction has no added benefit to an exercise program. Also, exercise increases blood flow (see above). The sad part is that about 1 in 3 therapists are using traction contrary to how it should be used. Have you seen that therapist? They are typically the ones applying hot packs, Hickies and massage.

  1. “employing soft tissue mobilization or massage was identified by approximately 65% of our respondents as a supplement to traction. Given limited evidence for the effectiveness of massage for treating LBP…the extent to which physical therapists in the United States use soft tissue mobilizations/massage in managing LBP may be concerning”

WOW! I was totally talking out of my a$$ in the above paragraph, but my a$$ is also supported by research. Who knew?

  1. “there is a growing body of evidence that higher levels of professional preparation influence clinical decision making and, potentially, patient outcomes”

Look there has been a backlash in our profession for what is called “alphabet soup” after our names. This means that some therapists have gone on for “extra” training and certifications. This is important. Unfortunately, our profession has deemed it inappropriate to put down all of the certifications after our name. The only way to know what your therapist knows is to ask. I personally have the initials:

DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy), cert. MDT (certified in Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy). None of the above initials were given to me…I earned them.

Thanks for reading this. If I go overboard at times and offend you, there are other blogs to read. Have a good night.

Quotes taken from:

Madson TJ, Hollman JH. Lumbar Traction for Managing Low Back Pain: A survey of Physical Therapists in the United States. J Orthop Phys Ther. 2015;45(8):586-595.

Categories non-professionals, Physical therapy, PTs, Written BlogsTags

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