Traction is the use of weights, ropes and pulleys to apply force to tissues surrounding a broken bone.
It is sometimes used to keep a broken leg in the correct position during the early stages of healing, or to ease the pain of a fracture while a patient is waiting for surgery.
When traction is used
There are several situations when traction may be used. For example, it may be used to:
- realign and fix bone fractures, such as a broken leg
- help reduce pain before surgery
- treat bone deformities caused by conditions such as scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine)
- correct a muscle contracture (shortening of a muscle)
Types of traction
The two main types of traction are:
- skin traction
- skeletal traction
Skin traction is usually carried out while a person is lying in a hospital bed. It uses equipment such as splints, bandages, adhesive tape and special gloves and boots that are attached to weights.
A pulling force is applied through soft tissues, such as the skin, muscles and tendons. The affected area of the body is pulled up using a pulley system attached to the bed.
Skeletal traction is used when a greater force needs to be applied. The force is applied directly to the skeleton, which means additional weight can be added without the risk of damaging the surrounding soft tissues.
The skin can usually support up to 3.5kg (8lb), whereas the skeleton can support up to 12kg (25lb).
After the pins, wires or screws have been implanted, weights are attached to them so that the affected body part can be pulled into the correct position.
How long skeletal traction needs to be used for will depend on how badly injured the bones are.
Does traction work?
Despite being used as a treatment for hundreds of years, there is little scientific evidence to support the use of traction.
Skin or skeletal traction was often routinely applied to the limb of a fractured hip before surgery. However, recent research has shown this appears to have little or no benefit.
There is also little evidence to show traction is an effective method of treating spinal conditions such as:
Several studies have either produced inconclusive results or concluded that there are more effective methods of treating these conditions, such as exercise and physiotherapy.
Although skin and skeletal traction may be used to treat certain types of fracture, traction is not usually needed for minor fractures.