What to Know About Neck Traction

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on May 10, 2023
4 min read

Neck traction, also called cervical traction, is a type of stretching that is often used for neck pain. 

The term traction can mean different things in health care, but it generally refers to using a pulling force to treat joint, bone, or muscle problems. This is often used in physical therapy or orthopedics to treat:

  • Long-lasting muscle spasms
  • Dislocation
  • Fractures 
  • Deformities 

Traction is usually used on the neck, spine, arms, legs, and pelvis to help with any muscle, joint, or bone problems. 

The concept of traction uses force and counterforce to pull in the opposite directions. This usually involves pulling one way and adjusting a bed or using your body weight as a counterweight in the other direction.

This is often used for broken limbs. You might have seen someone with their leg wrapped, attached to a pulley system with weights, and hanging in midair. The pulley helps pull in one direction and your body weight pulls in the opposite. This is often done to help align bones for proper healing. 

Neck traction, or cervical traction, also uses pulling force on the neck. These are usually stretches or other exercises that are used to relieve neck pain. These can sometimes involve devices that you can use at home. 

There are three types of neck traction, which are used at different times.

Manual cervical traction. This is done with your therapist using their hands to gently pull your head and neck away from your body. They hold your head for 10 seconds and then gently release. They might do it several times at different angles. 

This type of traction is used: 

  • To diagnose your neck condition
  • During massage or physical therapy to gently stretch muscles
  • During chiropractic adjustment to gently stretch the neck
  • To relieve pain

Mechanical cervical traction. In this kind of traction, a harness is attached to your head while you lay down. Your therapist attaches the harness to a machine and uses traction to stretch your head and neck away from your body.

This kind of traction can also involve a Halo device or Gardner-Wells tongs, which use a ring pinned to the skull. These can be attached to a vest for long-term wear to help stabilize the neck, or attached to a harness. A machine or a weight is then applied to the Halo to provide the pull.

Over-the-door cervical traction. This kind of neck traction is used in a therapy office or at home. A harness or cushioned sling is strapped to your head and neck. The harness is then attached to a rope and pulley system over a door. Sometimes a weight is added to the end of the rope or you can manually pull the rope to stretch the neck.

Neck traction is used in physical therapy settings, the emergency room, and sometimes at home. It is considered a non-invasive way to stabilize fractures or dislocations in the neck and spine. It’s also used for:

  • Arthritis
  • Pinched nerves
  • Cervical disc disease
  • Misalignment of cervical bones
  • Spondylosis, or spinal degenerative disc disease
  • Stenosis, or narrowing of the cervical space
  • Scoliosis‌

Neck traction has specific benefits, including:

  • Easing muscle spasm
  • Stopping muscles from shortening and contracting
  • Easing pressure
  • Helping to bring back blood flow and nerve function
  • Keeping your neck stable 
  • Correcting deformities
  • Resting an injury
  • Relieving pain

People who have neck problems can sometimes have numbness and tingling in the arms and legs and a lot of pain, among other symptoms. It’s not fully clear how neck traction helps, but it’s thought that being in traction can take off some of the pressure on the nerve, and help muscles relax, which brings relief.

Sometimes traction is used on and off with periods of rest. This might bring more blood flow to your nerves. This kind of traction is used mostly for degenerative disc disease and when your neck doesn’t move well.

Sustained traction uses weights or force for longer periods of time, usually up to 1 hour. This is used mostly for muscle pain and herniated discs.

Problems from neck traction are rare. People who have certain health conditions probably shouldn’t use this therapy. These include:

Your physical therapist or doctor will decide if you should use neck traction and if an at-home traction device is a good idea.

If you have any of the following symptoms during neck traction, you should stop immediately and be assessed by your doctor:

  • Headache
  • Nerve pain in your extremities
  • Pain suddenly goes away
  • Neurological symptoms
    • Muscle weakness
    • Numbness
    • Fainting
    • Confusion
    • Vision loss 
    • Tremors
    • Seizures 

Neck traction is one way to help with neck pain and other problems. Your muscles and tissues and spine are sensitive to damage, so it’s best to get advice from your doctor first.