Cervical Traction: Exercises and Benefits for Neck Pain (2023)

Cervical traction is a treatment often used in physical therapy to help treat neck pain and cervical radiculopathy (pinched nerves). It involves gently stretching your neck and separating the disc and joint surfaces in your cervical spine (neck).

Cervical spinal traction is used to treat neck disorders such as degenerative disc disease, herniated or bulging discs in the neck, arthritis, radiculopathy, and muscle spasms. A cervical traction device is used to gently pull your head away from your neck, expanding the space between vertebrae and helping to alleviate pinched or compressed nerves.

This article discusses cervical traction for neck pain, how cervical traction devices work, and what you can expect from treatment.

Cervical Traction: Exercises and Benefits for Neck Pain (1)

Physical Therapy for Neck Pain

If you have neck painor pain in your arm coming from your neck, your healthcare provider may refer you to a physical therapist (PT) to help treat your condition. Neck pain can limit your ability to turn your head, look up or down, or perform normal activities like sleeping or exercising.

Symptoms that often come from your neck include:

  • Pain in the middle of your neck
  • Pain in one side of your neck
  • Pain in one or both of your shoulder blades
  • Occasionally, pain or numbness and tingling in your arm or hand

Since many different symptoms coming from your neck can be felt in many different places, it's important to see your healthcare provider or physical therapist to help determine the cause of your symptomsand to decide on the best way to manage your condition.

If you visit a physical therapist to help treat your painful neck condition, he or she will likely perform an initial assessment and then prescribe various treatments. One such treatment is cervical traction.

What Does Cervical Traction Do?

Cervical traction can be used for a variety of purposes.

  • It can be used to help decrease compressive forces in the neck, which can help take pressure off of the discs that reside between the vertebrae (spinal bones) in the neck.
  • It can also open up the spaces where nerves exit the spinal canal, which can help relieve pressure off of a compressed nerve.
  • Traction can also help stretch the muscles and joint structures around the neck.

Common diagnoses that may benefit from cervical traction include, but are not limited to:

  • Herniated or bulging discs in the neck
  • Neck strains
  • Neck arthritis
  • Cervical muscle spasms
  • Radiculopathy

If you have any of these conditions or symptoms, check in with your healthcare provider and visit your PT to see if cervical traction is right for you. Your PT can show you what to do (and what to avoid) to properly manage your neck pain.


Cervical spinal traction is not right for everyone. Conditions that make a person a poor candidates for cervical traction include:

  • Aortic aneurysm
  • Diskitis
  • Myelopathy
  • Lung disease
  • Osteomyelitis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Pregnancy
  • Severe anxiety
  • Torticollis
  • Tumor on the spinal cord
  • Unstable neck ligaments
  • Untreated hypertension

Does Neck Traction Really Work?

When considering any medical treatment, in the PT clinic or elsewhere, it helps to understand what research is available for the treatment and how it may help your condition.

A 2017 meta-analysis published in the journal Spineexamined seven different cervical tractionstudies. The researchers concluded that neck traction can possibly offer short-term neck pain relief. The research is inconclusive when determining if traction offers long-term relief, and more studies need to be done on cervical traction to determine this.

When considering cervical traction for your neck pain, it's important to speak with your PT to be sure it is right for you and to have realistic expectations for the treatment.

How is Cervical Traction Applied?

Cervical traction can be applied in many different ways. Your PT can help you determine the best one.

(Video) Cervical Neck Traction Benefits

Options include:

  • Manual Cervical Traction:This type of traction is performed by your physical therapist, who holds your neck and head in their hands and then gently provides a traction or pulling force to your neck. Rhythmic periods of pulling and resting are usually applied, with each position being held for up to 10 seconds.
  • Mechanical Cervical Traction:Mechanical traction for your neck involves using a harness that attaches to your head and neck while you're lying down on your back. The harness is attached to a machine that can provide a traction force, and the machine has a control panel so that your physical therapist can change the amount of force applied to your neck.
  • Over-the-Door Traction:This type of traction can be used at home and involves strapping a harness to your head and neck while you're sitting in a chair. The harness is attached to a rope that's strung through a pulley system over your door, and traction force is applied using weights, a sandbag, or a water bag that's attached to the opposite end of the rope.

The pulling force involved will generally change depending on the patient's position, with less force being used in the supine position since you don't have to overcome the force of gravity. In this position, eight to 10 pounds is often recommended.

The force should be held for 10 to 20 seconds, and then slowly released. Increased pulling forces up to 40 to 50 pounds can be used, and rhythmic pulling and releasing should be continued for 10 to 20 minutes.

Traction can be applied several times throughout the day. Be sure to work closely with your physical therapist to help decide on the best treatment parameters for your specific condition.

If your symptoms worsen at any time during your treatment, notify your physical therapist immediately. He or she can make adjustments to your treatment, or traction can be discontinued altogether, and an alternative treatment can be started to treat your neck pain.

Can I Do Cervical Traction at Home?

Traction can be applied to your neck at home; this is most easily accomplished by an over-the-door traction unit that's available at many medical supply stores. If you purchase one, your PT can help you learn how to use the device, and can provide advice on the appropriate amount of force to use for your specific condition.

If you benefit from the mechanical traction in the physical therapy clinic, smaller traction units for home use are available that mimic the device used in the clinic. These devices are a bit more expensive than over-the-door traction units, but they're less cumbersome and easier to use than the door-mounted units. Your physical therapist can help you obtain a home mechanical traction unit if it's felt that you would benefit from one.

It is not a good idea to have someone who is not properly trained to perform cervical traction on your neck. You may injure your neck or worsen your condition if the correct application of traction is not performed.

Cervical Pillows

Talk to your physical therapist about cervical traction pillows that can help support your neck while you sleep. Also called a neck roll, these pillows keep your neck in proper alignment while you sleep, which helps minimize or eliminate neck pain.

A Word From Verywell

If you have neck pain, fear not. Most cases of cervical or neck pain resolve with a short course of physical therapy. Still, it is a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider if you have any condition that causes neck pain or loss of motion in your neck and cervical spine. He or she can help determine the cause of your pain and prescribe the correct treatment for your condition. Often, a referral to PT can be beneficial for neck pain, and cervical traction may be used during PT.

Cervical traction can be an effective treatment for neck pain and associated neck conditions, like arthritis or disc bulges and herniations. Remember that every person is different, and your physical therapy treatment should be tailored to your specific problems and needs. Your physical therapy program for neck pain should include active treatments like neck exercisesand postural correction to help your condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a cervical traction?

    Cervical traction is a technique that gently pulls the head away from the body to stretch the cervical spine. This helps to relieve compressed discs and relieve pinched nerves, muscle spasms, and radiculopathy—pain and tingling that travels down the arms to the hands.

    (Video) Cervical Traction for Neck Pain Relief
  • Does cervical traction really work?

    Yes, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Research shows many people experience short-term pain relief after cervical traction. Its long-term benefits are unclear.

  • What are the risks of cervical traction?

    Provided you don't have a contraindicated condition, cervical traction is usually safe. While rare, traction-induced spinal cord compromise may occur. Post-cervical traction problems include an increase in peripheral nerve pain, neurological symptoms, and a decrease or disappearance of central pain. If you experience these symptoms, tell your doctor right away.

  • How can I decompress my cervical spine at home?

    Cervical traction can be done at home, under the advice and guidance of your healthcare provider. Your physical therapist can order a cervical traction unit that attaches to a door frame.

    However, do not use a cervical traction device at home until you are properly trained to use it.

    (Video) amazing cervical traction technique for neck pain relief cervical spondylosis c5 c6 c7 slipped disc

4 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

Cervical Traction: Exercises and Benefits for Neck Pain (2)

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.

(Video) HOME- Self Cervical Traction

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What are the benefits of cervical traction? ›

Cervical traction helps to relax the muscles, which can significantly relieve pain and stiffness while increasing flexibility. It's also used to treat and flatten bulging or herniated disks. It can alleviate pain from joints, sprains, and spasms.

Does traction help neck pain? ›

No matter how it's applied, cervical traction creates additional space between the vertebrae in your neck to reduce pressure and tension. It's used to relieve symptoms like pain from a variety of conditions and issues.

How can I improve my neck traction at home? ›

For 15 to 30 seconds. You can do this up to five sets. This towel traction stretch will help stretch

How long does it take for cervical traction to work? ›

Duration of cervical traction can range from a few minutes to 20 to 30 min, once or twice weekly to several times per day. Anecdotal evidence suggests efficacy and safety, but there is no documentation of efficacy of cervical traction beyond short-term pain reduction.

What are the side effects of cervical traction? ›

Experts think that traction expands the space between the vertebrae, increases the movement of the joints and stretches the muscles and ligaments around the vertebrae. Side effects are generally few, but can include headache, nausea, fainting and injury to tissue.

Can you do neck traction at home? ›

Home traction exercises for the neck provided pain relief for this patient with cervical radiculopathy. This traction exercise seems simple, easy to learn, and reproducible. It can be done at home without involving any extra cost.

Can traction make my neck worse? ›

Using cervical traction should never be painful. If you have rheumatoid arthritis or have fractured your neck, cervical traction could make the condition worse. Also, if you experience any nausea, headaches, or dizziness, you should discontinue until you've had the chance to talk to your doctor or chiropractor.

How do you do traction at home? ›

How to Decompress Your Lower Back in 30 SECONDS - YouTube

Is traction good for bulging disc in neck? ›

Continuous or intermittent traction has been regarded as an effective treatment for herniated cervical discs because it facilitates widening of the disc spaces.

How do I decompress my neck for instant pain relief? ›

How to Decompress YOUR NECK for Instant Pain Relief - YouTube

How do you decompress a neck nerve? ›

These methods will decompress nerves, loosen tight muscles, and reduce pain.
If you have mild symptoms, you might find relief from:
  1. rest.
  2. soft cervical collar.
  3. hot or cold compress.
  4. practicing good posture.
  5. nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  6. acupuncture.
  7. massage.
  8. yoga.
10 Dec 2018

How much weight should I use for cervical traction? ›

Cervical traction is set up after the induction of anesthesia. The weights applied for traction are approximately 5 kg or one-sixth of the total body weight.

What angle is cervical traction? ›

Ideally, it is done at a 20-degree angle of flexion, but the examiner must explore all angles, including the extension of the neck and chin rotation, with a thorough assessment of each position.

When you have a pinched nerve in your neck? ›

Cervical radiculopathy, commonly called a "pinched nerve," occurs when a nerve in the neck is compressed or irritated where it branches away from the spinal cord. This may cause pain that radiates into the shoulder and/or arm, as well as muscle weakness and numbness.

What is stenosis of the neck? ›

Cervical stenosis is a common cause of neck pain. It happens as there are changes with the vertebrae of the neck and the joints between those vertebrae. Bone spurs begin to form, causing cervical spinal stenosis. As the bone spurs grow, the spinal canal narrows and put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.

How do you use neck traction? ›

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.

Is traction good for your back? ›

The results of spinal traction include pain relief, proper spinal alignment, and decompressed joints. Spinal traction stretches the muscles and bones in the back to combat the effects of gravity. Under the right circumstances, this could significantly improve the way you move and feel throughout the day.

Can you do traction on yourself? ›

Lie on your back in bed with your knees bent. Grab the top of the mattress or bed post. Gently pull to provide traction or un- loading. Lie on your back with your knees bent (figure A) or lie on your back with your lower legs resting on a chair (figure B).

How can I decompress my cervical spine at home? ›

At home cervical decompression with extension: Lie on your back, on a bench or firm bed. Slowly slide your head and neck off the edge of the bed. Use your hand to return to the starting position.

How often should you decompress your neck? ›

How Often to Do Spinal Decompression? Typically, you will undergo 2-5 spinal decompression sessions per week, for four to six weeks. That's 12-20 appointments before you can experience long-lasting pain relief.

Do chiropractors do neck traction? ›

During a mechanical traction procedure, your chiropractor will attach a harness to your head and neck as you lie flat on your back. The harness is hooked up to a machine that applies traction force to pull your head away from your neck to create an expansion, and consequently, relieve the compression and pain.

Can cervical instability heal on its own? ›

If you have cervical instability, you may be experiencing migraines, vertigo, or nausea. Fortunately, this condition is treatable, though not curable.

Do chiropractors use traction? ›

Chiropractic traction (also called “vertebral traction”, “spinal traction” or “cervical traction”) is one of the most widely used and accepted treatments for spinal, muscle and skeletal pain.

What are traction exercises? ›

Definition/Description. Lumbar traction is the process of applying a stretching force to the lumbar vertebrae through body weight, weights, and/or pulleys to distract individual joints of the lumbar spine.

How do you release spinal pressure? ›

1) Bar hang-ups

If you have a pull-up or chin-up bar this is a great exercise to help reap the benefits of spinal decompression. This exercise literally is exactly what it sounds like; hanging yourself from a bar. By doing this it will allow you to decompress the spine and help alleviate symptoms.

How do I know if my spine is out of alignment? ›

Possible signs that your spine is out of alignment include:
  1. chronic headaches.
  2. lower back pain.
  3. neck pain.
  4. knee pain.
  5. hip pain.
  6. frequent illnesses.
  7. excessive fatigue.
  8. numbness or tingling in the hands or feet.
14 Oct 2019

Can traction heal a bulging disc? ›

In conclusion, lumbar traction is both effective in improving symptoms and clinical findings in patients with lumbar disc herniation and also in decreasing the size of the herniated disc material as measured by CT.

What exercises should I avoid with herniated disc in neck? ›

Exercises To Avoid For Herniated Discs & Bulging Discs
  • Sit-Ups. ...
  • Squats. ...
  • Cycling. ...
  • Standing Hamstring Stretch. ...
  • Deadlifts. ...
  • High Impact Aerobic Activity. ...
  • Leg Press. ...
  • Straight Leg Raises.
24 May 2022

Is traction good for spinal stenosis? ›

Traction has been prescribed to treat various spinal disorders, including radiculopathy, disk herniation, disk degeneration, foraminal stenosis, and nonspecific low back pain (Fig. 46.3).

How do you unlock your neck? ›

Unlock a Tight Neck in Seconds #Shorts - YouTube

What happens when you decompress a neck? ›

By providing an axial stretch, pulling the neck and head upward, decompression is able to relieve pressure from the joints and discs of the neck, relieving symptoms associated with these conditions. As the disc is decompressed, blood flow is promoted to the disc, which allows for repair of the disc itself.

How long does neck decompression take? ›

Benefits of Spinal Decompression

Each session typically lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. These spinal decompression sessions are painless and often relaxing as some patients fall asleep during the procedure. Many patients enjoy the sessions and find them quite relaxing.

Is cervical pain permanent? ›

If cervical spondylosis severely compresses your spinal cord or nerve roots, the damage can be permanent.

What doctor treats pinched nerve in neck? ›

If your primary care doctor is unable to diagnose the pinched nerve, you may need to see a neurologist or orthopedist.

Can nerve damage in neck be repaired? ›

According to an article in the journal American Family Physician, most people will recover from a pinched nerve in the neck, and 88% of people will get better within 4 weeks and not require surgery. However, in more severe cases, nerve damage may not improve, and people may need more significant treatment.

What is the purpose of traction? ›

Most often, traction uses devices such as weights and pulleys to put tension on a displaced bone or joint, such as a dislocated shoulder. The tension helps put the joint back in position and keep it still. Traction is also used to keep a group of muscles (such as the neck muscles) stretched to reduce muscle spasms.

What does a neurologist do for neck pain? ›

Every back pain and neck pain patient is unique, with different degrees of problems associated with a bone or disc abnormality. A neurologist is trained to discover the causes of symptoms, as well as using EMG testing to assess the injury to nerves and whether it is reversible in the short and long term.

Will MRI show pinched nerves? ›

MRI scans which show soft tissues, such as nerves and discs, are generally preferred over CT scans which show bony elements. Advanced imaging can show exactly which nerve or nerves are being pinched and what is causing the nerve to be pinched.

When is neck pain serious? ›

Rarely, neck pain can be a symptom of a more serious problem. Seek medical care for neck pain with numbness or loss of strength in the arms or hands or for pain that shoots into a shoulder or down an arm.

What does C5-C6 and C7 control? ›

C5, as mentioned earlier, along with C3 and C4, contributes to the phrenic nerve that innervates the diaphragm. Roots C5, C6, and C7 produce the long thoracic nerve, responsible for controlling the serratus anterior.

What nerves are affected by C6 and C7? ›

The C6-C7 disc is 6th cervical disc near the lower part of the neck, near the top of the shoulders. The nerve root that would be affected by the C6-C7 disc herniation controls the arms, the shoulders, the heart, the lungs, and more.

How much weight should I use for cervical traction? ›

Cervical traction is set up after the induction of anesthesia. The weights applied for traction are approximately 5 kg or one-sixth of the total body weight.

How long does it take for cervical vertigo to go away? ›

Episodes of cervical vertigo go for hours, and the condition itself can last for years. Diagnosing cervical vertigo can be difficult. For one thing, some of its symptoms overlap with those of other medical problems, from inner ear issues to stroke to traumatic brain injury (concussion).

Can cervical instability heal on its own? ›

If you have cervical instability, you may be experiencing migraines, vertigo, or nausea. Fortunately, this condition is treatable, though not curable.

Do cervical neck traction pillows work? ›

This review assessed the use of cervical pillows for neck pain. The authors concluded that there was insufficient evidence to determine the efficacy of such pillows for chronic neck pain.

What is the purpose of traction? ›

Most often, traction uses devices such as weights and pulleys to put tension on a displaced bone or joint, such as a dislocated shoulder. The tension helps put the joint back in position and keep it still. Traction is also used to keep a group of muscles (such as the neck muscles) stretched to reduce muscle spasms.

How do you apply neck traction? ›

Cervical traction/How and When to do it Manually - YouTube

Can tight neck muscles cause vertigo? ›

Cervical vertigo is caused by inflammation, trauma, or degenerative changes in the cervical spine or neck musculature. Symptoms may include dizziness and neck pain with head movements. It may be accompanied by tense and tight neck muscles, stiffness of the neck as well as referred pain to the head, neck, or arms.

What part of the neck can cause vertigo? ›

Your cervical spine — or, your neck — plays a key role in balance and coordination. So, when this area of your spine is inflamed, arthritic or injured, it can make you feel dizzy, lightheaded and unsteady.

What triggers cervical vertigo? ›

Poor neck posture, neck disorders, or trauma to the cervical spine cause this condition. Cervical vertigo often results from a head injury that disrupts head and neck alignment, or whiplash. This dizziness most often occurs after moving your neck, and can also affect your sense of balance and concentration.

Will an MRI show cervical instability? ›

Conclusions: Magnetic resonance imaging is sensitive to soft-tissue injuries of the cervical spine. When CT scanning and radiography detect no fractures or signs of instability, MR imaging does not help in determining cervical stability and may lead to unnecessary testing when not otherwise indicated.

Can an xray show cervical instability? ›

With the application of the radiographic index method, cervical spine lordosis, the full flexion to full extension ROM, horizontal displacement, and cervical instability can be accurately illustrated.

How do you strengthen your neck ligaments? ›

Neutral position strengthening

Using one hand, place your fingertips on the back of your head at the top of your neck. Start to bend your head backward while using gentle pressure from your fingers to keep your head from bending. Hold for about 6 seconds. Repeat 8 to 12 times.

What is the best treatment for neck and shoulder pain? ›

Along with other types of chronic pain, neck and shoulder pain can be treated with a combination of natural therapies and healthy practices. Hot and cold therapy, stretching and strengthening exercises, and healthy posture are top recommendations.

What angle is cervical traction? ›

Ideally, it is done at a 20-degree angle of flexion, but the examiner must explore all angles, including the extension of the neck and chin rotation, with a thorough assessment of each position.

How do you do traction at home? ›

How to Decompress Your Lower Back in 30 SECONDS - YouTube


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