What Is Skeletal Traction?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 27, 2021

Skeletal traction is a treatment method for broken bones. It’s a system where a combination of pulleys, pins, and weights are used to promote the healing of fractured bones. These are usually in the lower body.

In skeletal traction, a pin is placed inside your bone. That pin provides a base for a pulley system. It uses gradual pulling force to realign broken bones and promote proper healing.

There are two common types of traction. These include skin traction and skeletal traction. The difference lies in where the pin, or base, is placed. Skeletal traction uses a pin inserted into your bone. In skin traction, a splint or adhesive is applied to your skin.

When Is Skeletal Traction Used?

Skeletal traction is a treatment method for broken bones that dates back to the 13th century. It’s mainly used for treating broken bones in the lower body.

These days, it’s used as a pre-operative treatment. Using skeletal traction can help realign your bones when your fracture is unstable.

Skeletal traction is commonly used for fractures in the following bones:

  • Upper leg bone (femur)
  • Lower leg bone (tibia) 
  • Upper arm bone (humerus)
  • Hips
  • Pelvis
  • Lower spinal area (cervical spine)

An orthopedic surgeon will insert a pin in a certain part of your bone when performing skeletal traction. Where the surgeon places the pin will depend on which bone you’ve broken and how it needs to be fixed. Local anesthesia is applied before this happens.

A weight of up to 15 pounds is attached to one end of the pulley in the traction mechanism. This provides a force to adjust the bones after a fracture. It also helps them return to their proper place.

A system of pulleys will realign the broken bone properly, preparing you for a successful surgery. Your doctor might also recommend traction as a way to promote proper healing without surgery.

Benefits of Skeletal Traction

Breaking a bone can be a very painful experience. It can also cause you a lot of inconveniences. It’s important to take all the necessary steps to make sure your broken bone heals properly. Otherwise, you could be dealing with the same problem for quite some time.

Skeletal traction is designed to put your bones back in place after a traumatic fracture. Accidents can make your bones break into small pieces. This makes it hard to regain the full use of them without the proper treatment.

The muscle around your broken bone can contract. This makes the bones shorten as they heal and is common when a child breaks their leg. It can result in one leg growing longer than the other.

Skeletal traction can be used as a temporary measure or as a treatment recommendation. The main benefits of skeletal traction are:

  • Joint or bone immobilization
  • Reduce or realign dislocations and fractures
  • Prevent and reduce muscle spasm
  • Pressure and pain relief 
  • Relieve spinal nerves
  • Promote patient comfort until a treatment option is decided

Complications of Skeletal Traction

There are lots of benefits to be had from skeletal traction. But as with most medical treatments, there can be complications too.

The complications are associated with lack of movement and the effects of suspended limbs. Some of the complications skeletal traction can cause include the following.

Infection. In skeletal traction, a metal pin is inserted into your bone. This pin acts as a base for reducing the fracture. The insertion site can become infected, whether it is in bone or soft tissue.

Pressure sores. Pressure sores are also known as pressure ulcers or bedsores. They can happen when you’re lying in the same position for an extended period of time. They often form in areas where your bones are close to your skin.

Nerve damage. There are different ways your nerves can be damaged when undergoing skeletal traction. Pin insertion and wire arrangement are factors, but more research is needed in the area.

Misalignment of the bone or joint. Medical staff will make every effort to realign your joints or broken bone correctly. Misalignment can happen in some cases.

Stiff joints. Your joints can become stiff from traction. This is possibly due to reduced blood flow.

Wire malfunction. The wires that suspend your limb during skeletal traction can sometimes malfunction or break.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT is when you develop a large blood clot in your deep veins. It usually happens in your legs when you’re unable to move for a long period of time. 

Show Sources


‌AO Surgery Reference: “Traction and bed rest.”

International Journal of Orthopaedics Sciences: “Skeletal traction for the management of lower limb fractures: Its relevance today.”

JOHNS HOPKINS: “Bedsores.”

Journal of Orthopaedics: “Injury to neurovascular structures with insertion of traction pins around the knee.”

MAYO CLINIC: “Deep vein thrombosis (DVT).”

MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES: “Skeletal Traction Standard Operation Procedure.”

University of Minnesota: “Orthoframe and Skeletal Traction.”

‌UW Medicine: “Limb Lengthening & Shortening.”

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