Despite the widespread use of traction, little is known of the mode of effect, and application remains largely anecdotal. The efficacy of traction is also unclear because of generally poor design of the clinical trials to date, and because subgroups of patients most likely to benefit have not been specifically studied. These observations prompted this review, the purposes of which are to evaluate the mechanisms by which traction may provide benefit and to provide rational guidelines for the clinical application of traction. Traction has been shown to separate the vertebrae and it appears that large forces are not required. Vertebral separation could provide relief from radicular symptoms by removing direct pressure or contact forces from sensitised neural tissue. Other mechanisms proposed to explain the effects of traction (e.g. reduction of disc protrusion or altered intradiscal pressure) have been shown not to occur. We conclude that traction is most likely to benefit patients with acute (less than 6 weeks' duration) radicular pain with concomitant neurological deficit. The apparent lack of a dose-response relationship suggests that low doses are probably sufficient to achieve benefit.
Copyright 2000 Harcourt Publishers Ltd.