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Learn More About Manual Cervical Traction

Painful joints often respond favorably to traction (also called distraction), the process of gapping a joint to diminish the compressive forces of gravity or muscle and fascial tension.  This treatment can be applied to small joints like the pairs of fascet joints in the neck, lower spine and fingers or larger joints like knees and hips. 

Traction can be applied mechanically using electric or pneumatic machines, a weight and pulley or by the hands of another person which is called manual traction.

Manual traction has many advantages.  Both the patient and therapist can feel what is going on at the same time in the joint capsules, muscles and fascia.  Fascial restrictions are perceived as knots or dense tissue through the therapist’s fingers and an effective amount of force can be applied while the patient gives the therapist feed back.

Myofascial release occurs with gentle distractive force as the therapist follows the patient’s changes of tension during a treatment.  This cannot be accomplished with machines that cannot feel or change direction with the patient.  For this reason I only use manual traction in the clinic.  Patients can be shown how to position to apply self traction at home.

The amount of actual separation of joints of the neck is minute because the ligaments are very strong and will only allow a millimeter or two of gaping movement, but that is enough to make big drops in pain levels.  Myofascial releasing is perceived as the neck moves through a patient’s comfortable range of motion slowly as manual traction is maintained.

The perception of releasing fascia is like the giving way of taffy or melting plastic.  The patient and the therapist can both feel this.

The amount of force applied to the neck is between slight and subtle.  It is unnecessary to apply more than a couple of pounds of traction to the cervical spine.

A joint that is unstable from trauma or pathology would not receive traction.

There are a variety of hand positions the therapist can use to perform manual cervical traction.  The direction of pull is continuously modified as needed. The therapist may side-glide a poorly moving fascet joint that feels “stuck”.

From manual traction, a therapist using the Myofascial Release Approach can segue into a cross-hand (or cross-finger) technique to any aspect of the neck, avoiding the windpipe and major blood vessels and continue with releasing the joint just under the skull (OA joint), the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) of the jaw or the hyoid bone (below the chin).  Contact can be made with the bones and joints of the cranium (skull) or face at the same time (as seen in this photo).

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The result is a neck that feels looser and has greater range of motion and less pain.  Manual therapy of the cervical spine is used to treat headaches, pain lower down the spine or in the shoulders, and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.