Could you really ease back pain, sciatica, or kidney stones by tipping backward on a table with your feet in the air?
There’s some research to back up the value of inversion therapy for back pain and other disorders. You do it on an inversion table that looks more like a lounge chair. You lie on it, and then tip it so you lean back at an angle or are upside down. You hang this way for a few minutes.
What is inversion therapy?
Inversion therapy is also called spinal traction. The theory is that being upside down eases the pressure of gravity on your nerves and the disks in your spine. You use it to temporarily create more space between vertebrae that are smushed together.
You can use these tables to relieve:
- Back pain
- Muscle spasms or tense muscles
- Compressed spinal disks
- Sciatica pain
- Kidney stones
Some people also use them as a general way to gently stretch joints and muscles, or just to relax.
Does it work?
Evidence is mixed on whether or not these tables are an effective treatment for pain.
Back pain. Some people find that they offer short-term relief from low back or compressed disk pain. It’s probably not an effective long-term treatment. Studies suggest that inversion therapy works no better than sham treatments for relief in this area.
Sciatica. A 2012 study from England showed that inversion therapy combined with physical therapy was an effective treatment for sciatica pain from a protruding disk. It may reduce the need for back surgery.
Kidney stones. This type of therapy may be helpful for painful kidney stones. Research shows that it can help you clear stones when you do it along with diuresis. This procedure, which you have in the hospital to get fluids so you can pee, can help clear kidney stones. You do this combo therapy after a shockwave treatment helps to break up the stones.
Hanging upside down works for Batman. But does it have health benefits for non-superheroes?
Inversion tables — which suspend a person upside down — are said to relieve back pain by taking pressure off the spine. Whether or not they work is another question.
Inversion table benefits
Inversion therapy is also known as spinal traction. Inversion tables allow you to strap yourself in and tilt backward at an angle or completely upside down.
The theory behind it is simple: Hanging upside down can take the pressure off the nerves of the spine and give the squishy disks between the vertebrae room to relax. Fans of inversion therapy say it can relieve problems including:
- Low back pain.
- Muscle spasms.
But inversion tables aren’t a slam-dunk for back pain. “The research is mixed,” Dr. Bodepudi says. “Some studies have found it can provide relief for some patients, but others haven’t found any benefit.”
And some people should definitely not try it. Hanging upside down can increase your blood pressure, so steer clear if you’re pregnant, have high blood pressure, heart disease or eye diseases such as glaucoma. And if you have acid reflux, tilting backward could make symptoms worse.
How to use an inversion table
If you think it’s worth a try, consider these pointers to stay safe:
- Talk to your doctor: “Since inversion therapy isn’t safe for everyone, talk to your physician to make sure you can use it safely,” Dr. Bodepudi says.
- Try it out in therapy: Physical therapists sometimes use inversion therapy in their practice. You might want to try it out in PT before you invest in a table for home.
- Have a spotter: Make sure someone else is around the first time you try it, in case you need help getting right side up again. You don’t want to get stuck with your feet in the air.
- Go small: To begin, spend just 30-to-45 seconds tilted backward, Dr. Bodepudi recommends. “It takes time to adjust to inversion therapy, so start with shorter increments,” he says. “If you don’t experience any dizziness or worsening pain, you can work your way up to longer stretches, as much as five minutes at a time.”
- Don’t overdo it: You don’t need to go fully vertical or spend lots of time to get benefits. Though studies found mixed results, research suggests that three minutes at a 60-degree tilt is the sweet spot for inversion therapy, Dr. Bodepudi notes.
- Don’t expect instant results: Some people find quick short-term relief from pain. But longer-term benefits could take as long as eight weeks to appear, so be patient, he says.
Benefits of Inversion Tables: How Inversion Therapy Relieves Chronic Back Pain
Benefits of Inversion Tables: How Inversion Therapy Relieves Chronic Back Pain
Inversion therapy may sound like a trendy thing, but inverting the body is a natural therapeutic modality used for centuries for stretching, strength-building, pain-relief and more. Many therapists recommend inversion therapy, and practitioners of inversion therapy can attest to the relief they feel and the improvements it’s added to their lives.
If you’re curious about inversion tables and how you can benefit from regular inversion therapy, read on to learn about how an inversion table could help with your chronic back pain and more.
What Is Inversion Therapy?
Inversion therapy is a spine health technique that angles the body downward for a few minutes. The inversion therapy approach uses gravity and your own bodyweight to help stretch and elongate the spine, alleviating pressure of compressed discs. Inversion therapy is practiced using an inversion or traction table, which allows the user to secure themselves and then adjust the angle at which the table tilts. The user can remain in the inverted position for as long as they’d like—typically under 15 minutes, depending on the angle.
Many people undergo inversion therapy during visits to their chiropractors or physiotherapists. However, if you feel like you could benefit from regular inversion therapy without the need for an appointment, you’re in luck. Inversion tables are available to have at home, ready to use as needed.
What Conditions Can Inversion Therapy Help With?
The principle behind inversion therapy is that it’s meant to be a way for a person to counter the effects that gravity has on their body. Gravity pulls organs, muscles and joints downward, compressing them against the spine. It’s believed that over time, this gravitationally caused compression can result in chronic back pain, fatigue and other related symptoms.
While many cases of chronic back or lumbar pain are non-specific, meaning there is no one determinable cause, spinal compression is a likely contributing factor. Most people are too sedentary these days, sitting for long periods without enough active movement to counter the stillness. Holistic solutions such as inversion therapy and many other wellness approaches can help reverse the effects of sedentary life by promoting movement and circulation.
Because inversion therapy alleviates pressure from the spine and increases the space between vertebrae, it’s considered a holistic solution for pain relief. Some of the conditions people manage with inversion therapy include:
- Chronic low back pain
- Non-specific back pain
- Sciatica pain
- Degenerative disc disease
- Muscle tension
Benefits of Inversion Tables
Those who use inversion tables regularly report that it adds noticeable health benefits to their lives. Because inversion tables stretch and release tension from muscles around the spine, inversion therapy can offer other benefits beyond pain-relief, including reduced stress, improved blood circulation and increased flexibility.
Here are the major health benefits of using inversion tables regularly:
1. Improve Spine Health
One of the primary reasons people experience back pain is due to improper spine alignment. Not adhering to aneutral posture consistently throughout the day puts unnecessary stress on the spine when it’s misaligned.
Gentle massage and light manipulation of the spine are techniques that therapists use to help people relieve compression in the spine, ultimately leading to better spine health over time. Inversion therapy is similar to these approaches, as it carefully inverts the body downward, allowing for gentle stretching from gravity’s pull.
2. Avoid the Need for Painkillers
Many people wholive with chronic back pain are dependant on prescription painkillers to find relief. Inversion therapy may help people reduce their need for medication by providing a natural pain management solution.
A 2013 study looked at 47 women suffering from chronic low back pain and their results after an eight-week inversion therapy program. The participants were divided into three groups that tested the results of inverting at different table angles—0 degrees, 30 degrees and 60 degrees—four times per week for three sets of three-minute inversions each.
After the eight-week program, the inverted groups saw significant improvements in their chronic low back pain symptoms. Additionally, the results showed that the inverted groups had greater flexibility in their upper bodies and lumbar areas, meaning they had a better ability to bend forward and touch their toes.
3. Prevent the Need for Surgery
Holistic wellness and natural pain management approaches are important for those who are at risk of requiring surgery for their lumbar pain or sciatica. Making lifestyle changes to protect your spine health can help prevent further damage that will eventually require surgical intervention. Inversion therapy could be a good solution for many people who would otherwise need to undergo a surgical procedure.
One study looked at howinversion therapy may help patients listed for lumbar surgery. One group of participants received both inversion and physical therapies, while the control group received only physical therapy. In the first group, 77% of participants avoided the need for surgery after undergoing both inversion and physical therapies. Only 22% of participants who underwent physical therapy alone avoided surgery.
4. Reduce Stress
Many people who use inversion tables report that it helps them de-stress. Inverted positions—keeping your head below your heart—are known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our rest-and-digest mode that’s opposite of our fight-or-flight mode (the sympathetic nervous system).
Yoga instructors explain this well when they recommend child’s pose—a position inspired by the way children sleep with their heads down and bums in the air. It’s a naturally soothing position that puts the body into a more restful state after experiencing an active sympathetic nervous system. Taking time to invert yourself may help you regain control over your stress and calm your nerves.
5. Increase Mobility
Many people with back pain avoid physical activity. However, light and consistentphysical activity is strongly recommended for back pain. Without it, your back pain will likely worsen, and you’ll experience decreased mobility. For this reason, maintaining mobility is very important when suffering from back pain. Inversion therapy, combined with exercise, may help.
As mentioned, the 2013 study that looked at inversion for chronic low back pain found that inverted participants had greater trunk flexion and lumbar flexibility. This means that the stretch their spines received from inverting regularly improved their mobility and loosened up tight low back muscles.
Inversion Therapy at Home
If you’re interested in benefiting from inversion therapy at home, then investing in your own inversion table could be right for you. It’s important to note that inversion tables aren’t considered harmful and are generally safe to use provided your health is in good condition. If your low back pain is caused by a severe condition, then inversion therapy might not be for you.
Because inversion therapy requires the head to be below the heart, it’s not recommended for people with high blood pressure, heart disease or glaucoma. People with severe spine injuries, hernias or who are recovering surgery should also not use an inversion table without the supervision of a physician. Always consult a physician before using inversion tables.
When using inversion therapy at home, you can take the liberty of playing around with different angles and durations to find the solution that’s right for you. You may decide to start with a slight angle at 15 degrees and gradually increase the inversion from there. Using an inversion table at home gives you an opportunity to connect with your body and learn more about what helps relieve your back pain symptoms.
The Benefits of Inversion
Relieve Back Pain
Unlike surgery, mechanical traction, and other invasive forms of treatment, using a Teeter is a gentle, passive way to target pain at the source and care for all weight-bearing joints. This progressive form of traction allows each joint to be decompressed by the same weight that compresses it while upright.
To put it simply, inverted decompression creates an ideal stretch that improves spinal health and targets back pain by helping to:
- 1. Rehydrate discs
- 2. Reduce nerve pressure
- 3. Realign the spine
- 4. Relax tense muscles
The benefits extend beyond just spinal health and pain relief though, also helping to:
- 5. Ease stress
- 6. Improve joint health
- 7. Increase flexibility
- 8. Improve fitness & build core strength
1) Rehydrate discs
Clinical studies show that when inverted the separation between the vertebrae increases, this allows for absorption of moisture into the soft tissue of the discs, increasing the nutrient content as well as plumping the discs for better shock absorption and flexibility.
When you are sitting, standing, exercising, or doing other weight-bearing activities, fluid is squeezed out of your discs and into adjacent soft tissue, just as moisture can be squeezed out of a sponge. As a result, your discs lose some of their height. To prove this fact, measure yourself in the morning and then again at night. You will lose half-an-inch to three-fourths-of-an-inch in height by the end of the day.
When you are lying down the compression in the spine is reduced enough to allow the discs to slowly reabsorb moisture and nutrition over the many hours you sleep. However, the discs may not always maintain their full height capacity, creating a total accumulation of height loss of up to two inches in a lifetime.
The Nachemson study provides some insight: A number of volunteers permitted a pressure sensor to be surgically implanted inside the third lumbar disc. The pressure inside the disc in the standing position was set at a baseline of 100% and all other body positions compared to it.
Interestingly one of the most compressive activities for the discs is sitting. The muscles in the stomach and back relax, but the pressure in the spine increases. If you are sitting in poor posture the pressure in the lumbar can climb as high as 250%. The real surprise occurred while lying down. The pressure inside the disc only lost 75% of standing body weight – it never went below 25%! This residual compression seems to be due to the hundreds of ligaments and muscles that encase the spine, holding it in compression like a mass of rubber bands.
This study further indicated that the amount of traction force required to overcome the compression was a large number, approximately 60% of your body weight. Inversion to an angle of about 60 degrees is the only practical way to offset that much gravity force while remaining relaxed.
2) Reduce nerve pressure
The height of the discs relates to the size of the passageway for the nerve roots to exit from the spinal column, so a plump hydrated disc creates maximum clearance, helping to alleviate pressure or pinching of the nerve root.
A bundle of nerves called the spinal cord run through the spinal column; these nerves control communication from the brain to the rest of the body. Nerve roots exit between the vertebrae along the length of the spine in the passageway created by the discs. Damage to the discs or de-hydration/degeneration of the discs can result in nerve root entrapment, or what is commonly called a pinched nerve.
Since the nerves extend into the body there can be pain that radiates to extremities. Through the increased hydration to the discs during inversion the discs plump in height, effectively increasing the separation between the vertebra and reducing the pressure and pinching on nerve roots.
3) Realign the spine
So many of our daily activities lend themselves to misalignment and possible permanent postural changes; sitting at the computer with rounded shoulders, carrying a heavy bag always on one shoulder, even wearing high heels.
Also, many of our most popular sports are one-sided and rotational, like golf, squash, tennis, which puts significant stress on the spine as well as develops muscles on a single side of the body.
Misalignment means that the body weight is no longer supported by an alignment of bones, and therefore the soft tissue of the body must resist gravity.
Misalignment is not always felt on the inside but left alone it can cause visual changes to your posture, and those changes can be degenerative. If you want to test this at home, take an empty aluminum can and place pressure on the top. The can will be able to maintain its shape even with great force applied because the sides are in alignment, but add a small dent to the can and it will crumble under half the amount of pressure.
Learn more from a chiropractor’s point of view on inversion
When a vertebra is bumped out of alignment the ligaments and muscles that support the spine can hold it in misalignment through the compression that they generate. Since these ligaments and muscles are engaged even when lying down, creating pressure as much as 25% compared to 100% standing, it can be difficult for the spine to naturally come back into alignment.
When inverted to 60 degrees the pressure in the spine drops to zero, as shown in the Nachemson medical study, with the pressure off of the vertebrae and with some gentle stretching the vertebra has the opportunity to move back into alignment.
4) Relax tense muscles
Muscles are gently stretched as circulation is increased, helping to reduce tension.
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