Do Inversion Tables Actually Work For Back Pain?
Inversion table therapy: does it work?
Stay up late enough watching TV and you’ll no doubt catch them: late-night infomercials advertising tables that lock your ankles in, flip you upside down and promise to alleviate chronic lower back pain, poor circulation, sciatica and even scoliosis.
Or you may have seen their more infamous cousin, gravity boots:
In general, a good rule of thumb is to not take health advice from sketchy-looking infomercials. But, as treating back pain is kind of my thing, I get questions multiple times per week about whether inversion therapy actually works. So let’s take a subjective look at the science behind inversion tables and whether they’re a worthwhile investment.
How Does Inversion Therapy Work?
The theory behind inversion dates all the way back to Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, in 400 BC. Hippocrates would hang people upside down on ladders to “stretch the spine.”
Obviously the inversion devices used today are a little more advanced, comfortable and safer than what Hippocrates was doing. But the concept is the same: to slowly decompress the spine, increase the space between your vertebra and reverse the effect of gravity on your body.
From the moment you get up in the morning, gravity is putting vertical pressure on your spinal column. This pressure compresses the fluid-filled discs between each vertebra throughout the day. When you go to bed, that vertical compression on your spine is gone and the discs are able to rehydrate and expand again.
It’s also why many people who suffer from back pain can feel fine in the morning but be in terrible shape by the end of the day – rehydrated, plumped-up discs act as buffers between vertebra, minimizing the effects of dysfunction between vertebra.
You can think of inversion therapy as enhanced laying down. Theoretically, it creates more space for the discs, nerves, and ligaments of the spine, and in doing so improves circulation through the surrounding muscles. In theory, this should work. And to some degree, it does.
“Gravitational traction had a very apparent effect on intervertebral space and was found to be an effective method to distract lumbar vertebrae.”
Another study found that 3 minutes of inversion resulted in improvement in overactive low back muscles, increased disc space, and improved forward trunk flexion, without any negative effect on cardiovascular function.
Inversion therapy can feel good while it’s happening (and for a short time afterwards). Unfortunately, fixing low back pain just isn’t that simple.
So why does hanging upside down for the recommended 10-20 minutes a day not cure us? Why aren’t inversion tables absolute home necessities like a stove or refrigerator? Why must we keep using the inversion table to find temporary relief and never really get better? All good questions.
The Problem With Inversion Tables
First of all, most manufacturers of inversion tables direct the user to stay inverted for between 10 and 20 minutes a day. That amount of time spent upside down can be dangerous.
Using an inversion table is not without risks: it raises blood pressure, lowers heart rate, and increases pressure in the eye. In some users, it has caused bleeding into the retina. It’s also been associated with headache and blurred vision. Don’t use an inversion table if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or glaucoma or any other eye disease.
You should also avoid using an inversion table if you have any cardiovascular conditions, a fracture, osteoporosis, or a hernia. Inversion tables can also be dangerous for those who are overweight or pregnant. In all of these cases, you should avoid using an inversion table.
Second, any relief you get from inversion therapy is temporary. An inversion table is a passive form of stretching; it passively lengthens the muscles, connective tissues and intervertebral discs. It’s a temporary fix – you’re not actually fixing the vertebral misalignments and biomechanical dysfunction that’s at the root of the problem. Once you get up, and gravity exerts it’s downward force once again, you’ll be right back in the same shape within an hour or two.
Think of passive stretching like pulling a rubber band, after being stretched you’ll return to your body’s “normal” position rather quickly.
If You Do Decide To Use An Inversion Table…
There are some important tips to keep in mind if you do decide to try an inversion table.
For one, don’t do it alone. Have someone nearby as a spotter just in case something goes wrong and you can’t get out of the table. Also, strap yourself in so you don’t end up sliding off.
Don’t tilt all the way back. You only need to invert about 30º. And keep it to around 3 minutes per session – definitely not more than 10 minutes at a time.
The Bottom Line
So what’s the final verdict? If you have an inversion table laying around collecting dust, and have no heart or eye problems or other health conditions that would be impacted by increased blood pressure, then it’s probably safe to try.
There is some evidence that inversion tables are beneficial for relieving back pain short-term, and for 3 minutes or less, they have been proven to be safe without prior screening for cardiovascular or other health issues. Just don’t expect any long-term changes.
The bottom line is, while inversion tables can provide temporary relief for back pain, there are much better ways to spend your healthcare dollars that actually address the cause of the problem.
Have a friend or family member that’s struggling with back pain? Even if they’re already being treated by their primary care physician, tell them it’s time to make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic. In a recent study published in SPINE, over 73% of people who saw a chiropractor in addition to their medical doctor found significant or complete relief from back pain, compared with only 17% in the standard-medical-care-only group.
It’s a fact: what we do at Ascent Chiropractic can help you address the cause of the problem, not just mask the symptoms.
Looking for a Brookfield chiropractor? We’d love to help you get started with chiropractic care. Make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic in Brookfield by calling 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.