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What is a Traction Splint?

By Vanessa Harvey
Updated Jan 31, 2024
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A traction splint is a medical device used to apply a constant pulling action along the length of a lower extremity for stabilization of a fractured bone and to help reduce muscle spasms in the limb. Any break in a bone, no matter whether the skin has been broken, is a fracture. This splinting device is almost exclusively used on a fractured femur or thigh bone, which is why it is often called a femur traction splint. There are two varieties of traction splint: the unipolar splint and the bipolar splint.

During World War I, about 80 percent of soldiers who suffered a femur fracture died as a result of going into shock because as much as 2 pints (1,000 cc) of blood can be lost from such an injury, whether opened or closed. Loss of blood in closed fractures is caused by movement of the broken femoral ends overriding each other, which creates internal "knives" that cut and tear blood vessels and other soft tissues. These broken ends override each other because of the violent spasms of the quadriceps and hamstrings, which are large muscle groups in the thigh. This not only causes further injury, it causes the patient great discomfort; the femur is a very large bone filled with nerves and blood vessels.

Two surgeons who observed the high death rate from femur fractures during world war I invented the traction splint to counter the muscle spasms that occur with such an injury, because those spasms cause bone to cut blood vessels. Regardless of the type of traction splint used, the goal is to minimize blood loss and pain and to ensure that the patient has the greatest possible chances of survival. Deaths resulting from femur fractures is less than 20 percent with early application of this medical device.

A unipolar traction splint contains one rod made of metal that an emergency medical technician (EMT), paramedic or military field medic places alongside the fractured leg. Two metal rods cradle the injured leg when using the bipolar variety, which has an ankle hitch on which it pulls while the frame is anchored against the pelvis. This is how a pull is felt on the leg. Any movement, however, of the pelvis off the ground causes the splint to slightly shift and lose some pull. Unipolar splints have the advantage of remaining stable when the patient is moved because they are anchored against the pubis between the patient's legs.

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