Spine Traction in Scoliosis


My child’s spine doctor says they want to use “traction” on
my child’s spine.  This sounds
scary.  What is it?  Is this something new?  I have never heard of it.


Spine traction to correct spinal deformity is not a new
concept; in fact, the first applications were reported in ancient Hindu mythological
epics (3500-1800 BC)(Kumar K.:  Spinal
deformity and axial traction.  Spine
21:653-656, 1996). Hippocrates (c. 460 BC – 380 BC) could be considered the
first to study the spine and spinal deformity, and introduced the terms
“scoliosis” and “kyphosis”. He invented the Hippocrates Bench or Board through
which the patient’s spine was stretched, while awake, to help with their spinal
deformity.  The traction was applied by
pulling on the head and neck on one end, and pulling down through the legs on
the other end.  A winch would gradually
increase the stretch on the spine, then a practitioner could then push on the
spine to induce a corrective force to the chest and spine.

In addition, he developed the Hippocrates Ladder which hung
the patient upside down or head up.  This
traction method used gravity to improve the spine deformity.  Almost 5 centuries later Galen of Pergamon (c. 130-200 AD) furthered
the concepts introduced by Hippocrates and advanced the entire field medicine
in many ways.

Traction for spinal deformity correction fell into disfavor
due to the production of spinal cord injury and paraplegia created by the
application of excessive distraction to the spine. 

However, over the last three decades, with refinement in the
knowledge of spinal anatomy and biomechanics, the concept of controlled axial
traction has regained attention with the use of the Harrington outrigger,
Cotrel traction, and halo traction. 

In the next three posts I will outline the 3 most
commonly-applied techniques of spinal traction currently in use:

  1. Preoperative halo-gravity
  2. Intraoperative
    halo-femoral traction
  3. Internal “dis-traction” technique
    (Table 1).
The purpose of spine traction in 2020 is to improve spinal deformity safely and then apply a spine cast or spinal implants to further correct the spine deformity and to maintain the improved spine position.  Traction has been shown by multiple authors and centers to be a safe procedure which improves the outcomes of casting or surgery.  We use all three of the above-mentioned traction strategies at Washington University School of Medicine, at our Shriners Hospital for Children and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

below table highlights the strengths and weaknesses of each type of traction we
will discuss in the upcoming blog posts……..



Preoperative Halo-gravity

1. Permits gradual application of

2. Correction while patient is

3. Low risk of neurologic

1. Requires weeks or months of
continuous, daily treatment

2. Pin site issues

3. Contraindicated for cervical
and occipito-cervical instability

Intraoperative Halo-femoral

1. Preoperative hospitalization

2. Can easily adjust traction
force to achieve desired correction

3. Improves pelvic obliquity

4. Decreases operative time

1. Additional operative time for
halo application and traction pin insertion with scarring

2. Contraindicated for cervical
or occipito-cervical instability

3. Relative contraindication with
kyphotic deformity

Internal Dis-traction

1. No external force application

1. Shorter-term application of
traction; less stress relaxation and creep


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