Traction goes by other names including decompression or distraction. It means to create space and unload a joint or joints typically accomplished by pulling or hanging. With Fascial Stretch Therapy, we use traction as one of the main techniques to fight the effects of gravity, repetitive activity, and poor posture. By using traction with movement we can successfully unwind restricted joint capsules and the fascial network. The opposite of traction is compression which is what happens when we bear weight under gravity by standing, jumping, or lifting weights. Compression forces are good as long as we have optimal posture, movement mechanics, and utilize tools such as traction. Compression forces keep our bones stimulated in order to stay strong as well as create strong ligamentous, tendinous, and myofascial tissues that can withstand the demands of life and sport.
As many of us know, compressive forces start to create issues when our body is chronically stressed over time in a certain unhealthy posture or relationship. When joints become over-stressed due to position or the lack of balanced myofascial support, they begin to deteriorate. Frictional forces in addition to compressive forces are now working against you. The key is to realize what is happening and to combat these forces a little each day and regularly with other modalities. PT’s and Chiro’s are known for using decompression tables or devices for certain pathological conditions related to the spine. FST practitioners use their body to create space and mobilize the major joints in the body using gentle pulling and highly specialized leverage techniques.
The first two principles of FST from creators Ann and Chris Frederick are in relation to the joint and traction:
Principle 1. Target the entire joint
Principle 2. Get maximal lengthening with traction. Joints get compressed so start by decompressing joints before mobilizing and stretching: In about 50% of a healthy person’s lack of ROM at the joint has been suggested in research to be due to tightness in the joint capsule (1). In Stretching the joint capsule before the deeper muscles that are close to that joint results in better functional flexibility. When ROM in a joint is restricted, ROM in the muscle is also restricted (2). Because muscles attach to bones and bones connect to other bones by way of joints, restriction in one joint capsule can lead to restrictions and compensations in other parts of the body. For these reasons we always start with traction at the hip joint in lower body protocols. In general, always traction the joint and muscle before using client assisted mobilization or stretching. Contraindications and precautions to traction of joints and other soft tissues include but are not limited to: instability, hyper-mobility, local acute or sub-acute injury.
Benefits of traction include increased circulation throughout the joint, decreased muscular tone, increased range of motion, increased muscular activation, enhanced proprioception, and the break-up of scar tissue when multiple planes of traction are used. Increased circulation is the major benefit that continues to show results. By enhancing the flow of fluids throughout the joints and body, tissues become re-hydrated, which means nerve, muscle, and fascial tissues that were even slightly “turned-off” or dehydrated can now receive the nutrients and information they require to properly function. This is where something as simple as traction can have a lasting impact on not only local tissues such as the hip joint and surrounding myofascia, but also the nerves that pass through and innervate muscles, skin, and other organs. This allows for our proprioceptors to receive and relay more information leading to a positive change in our brain. Our mind-body connection has now been altered allowing us to sense, feel, and have a new opportunity to move better.
The most common response I hear when client’s get off of the table after receiving FST on one side of their body is that there is such a lightness and ease of movement compared with the other side. We often aren’t aware that we are compressed until after we are decompressed.
There are ways to decompress your own body, although not as deep or at as many unique angles as accomplished with FST. Qigong, yoga, and tai chi are great at instructing a tall posture that is meant to ground you from the feet and lengthen your spine up through your head to the heavens. Imagine you are being pulled upward by a string attached at the top of your head. This is a great way to build a habit to check-in if you are slouching or allowing gravity to compress your spine into unhealthy postures. Be extra aware when driving, working at a desk, but also when interacting with others. We often alter our posture when under mental, emotional, or physical stress. Our state of mind is directly related to our posture.
Another movement to try is a forward fold. The key with any movement is to direct the movement from the inside out by creating length between each vertebrae by reaching through the crown of your head and lifting your ribs off of your hips as you fold forward. Hinge at your hips instead of rounding your spine. After reaching the limits of your hamstring flexibility, allow your spine to fully hang with the crown of your head aiming toward the floor. Breathe in and out and allow the weight of your head to traction your spine.
In relation to recreational sport and athletics, I have seen great results working with individuals who are under regular compressive loads including runners, cyclists (mostly spinal posture and hips), climbers, skiers, and snowboarders.
1. Johns RJ, Wright V. Relative importance of various tissues in joint stiffness. Journal of Applied Physiology
2. Stretch to Win by A. Frederick and C. Frederick. Human Kinetics 2006. ISBN 978-0736055291.