Updated: September 2018
There are many different treatments for back pain, including an increasing number of alternative methods. One of the more unusual treatment options which is becoming increasingly popular is a method known as inversion therapy. Inversion therapy is not for everyone, and you might find your children calling you Batman if you begin this form of therapy. However, it is a non-invasive treatment method which may be used in conjunction with most medications.
Inversion Therapy Basics
Prior to investing in this form of therapy, it is best to gain an understanding of what it is and what it does. You should consult with a doctor or physical therapy specialist before starting this treatment to prevent injury or other possible health risks.
What is Inversion Therapy?
Inversion therapy is precisely what it sounds like. You are partially or fully inverted using a specially designed table or chair.
Think of when you were a kid and hanging upside down on the monkey bars using your legs. This is essentially a form of inversion therapy although as an adult, you will of course do this in a much safer and comfortable way.
Being inverted stretches the spinal column (a process known as spinal traction) using gravity, increasing the space between vertebrae and reducing the pressure on nerve roots and spinal disks. Some techniques require a larger angle of decline than others, but in all cases, the key factor is for the heart to be elevated above the head.
Does Inversion Therapy Work?
On its own, inversion therapy cannot provide long-term relief for back pain. However, when used as part of a more comprehensive treatment program, its effects are capable of providing temporary relief against spinal disk compression.
Some conditions which are commonly treated using inversion therapy include degeneration, disk herniation, and spinal stenosis.
In some cases, inversion therapy may delay or eliminate the need for surgery when performed under medical supervision. These instances generally involve herniated disks in their early stages. However, while studies have shown some temporary benefit, there is not enough longitudinal (i.e. long-term observation) data to confirm or deny any permanent effects against disk-related issues.
As with all forms of therapy, there are some conditions which may be exacerbated by inversion therapy. If you suffer from heart or circulatory conditions, it it best to check with your doctor before attempting inversion, as the process places a lot of stress on the circulatory system. Another health concern which is not usually covered is near-sightedness. As gravity pulls blood towards the head, inversion can cause strain on the blood vessels in the eyes, which has been shown to further distort your eyes’ lenses over time. Likewise, it can exacerbate glaucoma.
This does not necessarily mean that you cannot use inversion therapy if you have these conditions, however. As inversion may be done at various angles and 100% inversion is not required, your doctor may approve of partial inversion with a set angle limit.
In addition, it’s also important to have a spotter on-hand the first couple times you use this form of therapy as some people may be susceptible to actually blacking out. This is especially true of inversion tables, which may also require assistance to use. Finally, using an inversion table may be too painful or even harmful if your ankles or feet have suffered injuries in past, as they will be holding your full weight in many instances.
Inversion tables are by far the most popular device used for inversion therapy, although they are not for everyone. You should always have a spotter when first starting out on a table, and consult with a physician before attempting treatment using this device.
While the table is capable of full inversion, most users will find they are more comfortable at an angle of 70 degrees or less. Your own final angle should be based upon what feels best to you.
Inversion tables have been used by physical therapists for a long time and the popularity of the tables for home use has driven down their price due to manufacturer competition. It’s a great time to buy one of these tables and for many, the low one-time cost can replace the much higher ongoing costs of physical therapy.
How to use an Inversion Table
Using an inversion table is more complicated than inversion chairs, but feature the ability to perform full inversions.
Important: It’s critical you start slowly when beginning inversion therapy. Start at only a slight angle for less than five minutes. Gradually, increase the angle and/or time per session. Most people will experience some pressure in their head or sinuses the first few times of use. Over time, this feeling should lessen as your body gets used to being at an unfamiliar angle.
- Adjust the pivot arm settings, if your table includes one. This feature will help you set a maximum angle for your inversion session. Most models have an adjustable strap which you hook underneath the frame instead of a pivot arm. This strap can be used to set your maximum angle, and you should make sure it is firmly attached to avoid potential accidents. When beginning, it is best to set an angle of no more than 15 degrees. As you get more comfortable, you can slightly increase the angle on subsequent sessions until you work your way up to full inversion (or less if you feel more comfortable or get better results).
- Check the adjustable boom to ensure it is set for the correct height. As a general rule, you should set the boom for one inch above your height. Keep in mind, the effects of gravity will make you temporarily elongate due to the spinal stretching. Most inversion tables are designed for a wide range of heights usually anywhere from about 5′ 3″ all the way to 6′ 6″ on some models. Unless the table is placed in room with low ceiling height (such as some basements), you should have plenty of clearance.
- Step into the end-step frame and lock yourself in using the spring-loaded control. Depending upon the model, your legs may be held in place using either a padded bar or cuffs, or anti-gravity boots. Lean back onto the table, placing your hands on your chest (or the table’s handles on some models). If the settings are correct, you will angle back similar to a teeter totter, with the pivot point located roughly at the middle of your body (this point is roughly at the navel). Failure to tilt back after placing you hands on your chest indicates the boom may be at an incorrect setting. Likewise, tilting before placing your arms is a sign that the boom setting is too short.
- Control of the table while inverted is generally a matter of body movement. Moving your arms higher will increase the angle, and bending your knees changes the center of gravity, tilting the table back towards an upright position. Many of the better tables have handles you can hold on to to make it easier to control the angle. You should always pause in the horizontal position, and your back should not be touching the frame during a full inversion. Use your hands to help support your weight during full inversion.
Do Inversion Tables Work?
While there is evidence that inversion tables provide temporary relief against back pain, there have been no conclusive studies to indicate long-term relief. In other words, while gravity will cause your spine to decompress when inverted, gravity will also make it return back to normal after being in the upright position for a while.
So while inversion therapy won’t necessarily FIX a disc problem, it is a good way to temporarily help relieve pain when used on a regular basis. For those of us with severe back pain, even temporary relief makes life a whole lot better.
When using an inversion table for back pain, it is important to roll up a towel and place it behind your lower back for lumbar support during a session. Some tables now include padded lumbar support so a towel would not be necessary. Inversion tables seem to work best in easing cases of spinal disk issues, such as herniation.
Inversion Table Benefits
Using an inversion table may relieve spinal pressure and reduce disk compression. Unfortunately, the treatment is only temporary, so you should not use it in place of surgery or other treatments. When used in conjunction with other methods of treatment, inversion tables may provide temporary relief and even delay the need for surgery in less serious cases.
An added benefit of using the table involves circulation. Despite creating overall strain on the circulatory system, inversion helps to oxygenate the brain and provide improved blood flow to the upper body if performed responsibly and for short periods.
Common Issues with Inversion Tables
Due to the design of an inversion table, there are some inherent flaws which may make it a poor choice over inversion chairs. The primary issue is the strain on your feet and ankles, which were not designed to support the body at that angle (especially true for heavier users). Some models of tables have much better designs for foot support than others. Users may experience additional discomfort in the legs and hips.
Some models also don’t offer any type of lumbar support, meaning your spine will be stretched at a straight angle instead of along thee natural curve. You can place a rolled up towel under your back to help. Finally, there are a large number of medical conditions which may be exacerbated by using a table, including arthritis, a history of foot or leg injuries, glaucoma, and heart conditions. You should consult with you physician first if you have any of these conditions.
Inversion chairs are a useful tool for performing inversion therapy. While there are other tools and exercises available, many doctors and patients prefer the unique qualities of remaining in a seated position.
The inversion chair was developed as a solution to complaints of joint pain and added strain on the ankles and feet caused by inversion tables. Inversion chairs recline the body without applying pressure to any one area. Lumbar support also helps the user keep a more natural curvature, unlike tables.
How to use an Inversion Chair
Using an inversion chair is highly intuitive. Sitting down as if in a normal chair, you lock your ankles between padded bars and buckle your waist using a strap. Once secured, all you need do is lean backwards and the chair will begin to tilt. Handrails or bars allow you greater control, as does the position of your arms in general. Raising your arms above your chest towards or past the head will change the center of gravity and increase the angle of inversion.
The decline is not as sharp a with inversion tables, with a maximum angle of 70 degrees. This is less stressful on the circulatory system, and the natural curl of being seated makes it easier to control the angle and speed of tilt. Handles along the frame add extra control, eliminating the need to have a spotter in most cases. Beginning sessions are generally in five to ten minutes increments, although some more advanced users will read a book or even nap while reclining.
Inversion Chair Benefits
There are numerous benefits to using an inversion chair. The seated position is far more comfortable and causes less strain on the feet, legs, and hips than other inversion tools. The ease of movement allows for a smoother, more controlled transition between angles. This, in turn, eases changes in blood pressure and allows for better balance.
Finally, being seated provides better lumbar and pelvic support than other positions, which in turn creates additional benefits for people with lower back pain and less overall stress on the spine.
Do Inversion Chairs Work?
As with all treatment methods, the effects of an inversion chair can be highly subjective and that’s the stance of BackPained.com as well. There is a necessary adjustment period, and you should start with five to ten minute sessions at no more than 15 degrees. Users who have found the most benefit generally admit the treatment was not immediately effective, and it often took a month or more to find the ideal angle. However, once adjusted, they found the inversion chair to be both relaxing and beneficial.
The chair may be used for minor to moderate back pain a a general treatment, although chronic back pain sufferers should consult with a physician before using the chair. In addition, inversion chairs may have some preventative benefits, especially for those who have standing jobs or perform heavy labor. Unfortunately, there have not yet been conclusive studies to determine the full effectiveness of this tool.
Those with moderate to more severe back pain would probably get better relief with an inversion table due to a chair’s angle limitations. Also, since chairs are not as common as the tables, expect to pay a higher price.
Some Other Common Inversion Methods
You may have engaged in some inversion therapy exercises without being aware of it. While inversion tables and chairs are useful, there are some techniques you can perform while at work or otherwise unable to access such bulky equipment. The following are two common alternatives to using chairs or tables.
You may remember hanging from the playground bars as a child. This may arguably be one of the oldest forms of inversion available. Hanging from a bar is best used as a preventative measure, and should not be performed without a spotter on-hand. As you are hooking your knees over the bar, there is no strain on the feet and ankles. However, you may encounter stress on the hips and reduced circulation in the lower legs.
Obviously, hanging upside down on a bar with no safety device to prevent you from falling is not exactly safe, it may be an option for some who are in excellent physical shape and feel comfortable doing so.
Inversion Boots (aka: Anti-gravity Boots)
The term “boot” is a bit of a misnomer, as inversion boots (sometimes known as anti-gravity boots) wrap around the ankles and base of the leg, but do not cover the foot. These devices have a sturdy bar in the front which points upwards and is used to hook onto a bar. You can then hang suspended by one or both ankles.
Inversion boots are useful for many exercises, but may not be advisable in the case of a medical condition. Be sure to consult with a physician before using anti-gravity boots, and it is a good idea to have a spotter on-hand to help you hook an unhook from the bar.
Used primarily by yoga practitioners, the inversion swing is a portable device made of parachute canvas. It may bee attacked to doorways, suspended from a ceiling, attached to both walls, or even used outdoors.There are several sets of handles along the swing to assist in various poses.
While swings do not create the pressure on the ankles caused by inversion tables, they do require a degree of strength in order to use. They are also more difficult to control than tables and are not advisable for people with arthritis and muscle stiffness.
Used for a variety of medical and fitness reasons, yoga employs a number of inversion poses. These poses can be used to improve posture, relieve spinal compression-related pain, and promote overall health. As with any other form of inversion, performing these poses improperly can lead to injury or make an existing problem worse.
However, most inverted poses have the benefit of being easy to perform at the office or park without requiring any additional equipment. Seek the assistance of an experienced practitioner, as well as consulting with your physician before using yoga to treat back pain symptoms. To get you started, here are 3 easy yoga poses to help relieve back pain.
- Healthy Living provides a brief overview of yoga inversion therapy and the different levels of pose.
- Inversion Helps! provides an article describing how inversion swings may affect back pain sufferers.
- The Mayo Clinic gives an overview describing the effects of inversion therapy.
- Spine Universe offers a comprehensive article discussing the use of inversion therapy using a table to help relieve back pain and sciatica.