Back pain is one of the most common reasons Americans see doctors, take pain medication, and have surgery.
Inversion therapy — which is simply hanging upside down to let gravity stretch the spine — is gaining popularity as a non-invasive treatment.
Inversion is particularly effective when pain is caused by a narrowing of the spaces in the spine from degenerated or herniated discs, or wear and tear.
“These conditions cause gravitational pressure to be placed on the nerve roots, resulting in shooting pains in the back, buttocks, legs, and feet,” says chiropractor Shad Foster, owner of Foster Family Chiropractic in Van Wert, Ohio.
“During inversion therapy, you turn your body upside down to increase the space and reduce pressure between the vertebrae and nerve roots,” he tells Newsmax Health.
A British study found that using an inversion table could often eliminate the need for surgery.
In a group of patients awaiting back surgery, researchers in Newcastle upon Tyne compared results of physical therapy alone or combined with the use of a Teeter inversion table, a device that makes it easy for patients to hang upside down.
Among 13 patients who used the Teeter, 10 no longer needed surgery. In comparison, only 2 of 11 patients who received only physical therapy avoided surgery.
Other studies have found that using inversion tables reduced absenteeism from work due to back pain. And U.S. military research has found that inversion does, in fact, increase space between vertebrae, helping to relieve back pain.
Even if back pain isn’t a problem, inversion can be beneficial by stretching muscles and ligaments, reducing muscle spasms, increasing circulation, improving flexibility, and promoting elimination of toxins, says Foster.
“Stretching stimulates the lymph glands to increase the flow of lymphatic fluids, part of the body’s waste disposal system,” he says.
Other benefits, he says, include relief from motion sickness, improved posture, and reduced stress. And, by stimulating the inner ear, inversion can even improve spatial awareness and balance.
Inversion isn’t recommended for pregnant women, people who are obese or have high blood pressure, glaucoma, pink eye, or a detached retina (because it increases pressure in the eyes).
How to Do It
Inversion tables are available at physical therapy clinics and are increasingly found at health clubs. They are sold at department stores (Walmart, Target) and online. Prices range from $60 to about $300.
Chiropractor Shad Foster recommends:
- Start by laying flat and tip backward by only 10 to 20 degrees for 2 minutes. Do this daily for two weeks. At a tilt of around 20 degrees, your body experiences mild stretching of muscles and joints, and circulation is stimulated, improving oxygen flow to the head.
- Slowly increase the incline and time, working up to 15 minutes (or eventually, 30 minutes at most) at a 60-degree angle, which is roughly parallel with the rear legs of the table. You may or may not want to progress to a full 90-degree inversion, where you are hanging upside down, perpendicular to the floor.
Most people don’t need to go beyond a 60-degree incline, according to Foster.
“This is the angle to which the average person experiences virtually all the benefits of inversion,” he says. “Your spine receives the amount of traction it needs to completely decompress.”
In Foster’s experience, 10 to 20 minutes, once or twice daily, is a typical amount of time people spend inverted.
“The important thing is to listen to your body and underdo it rather than overdo it,” he advises. “If you are at all uncomfortable, simply return to upright slowly.”
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