Does inversion therapy relieve back pain? Is it safe?
Inversion therapy is where a person is suspended upside down for several minutes with the aim of relieving back pain or similar ailments. Some evidence supports the use of inversion therapy for short-term management of back pain.
Inversion therapy is said to take the pressure off a person’s spine, open up the vertebrae, and increase circulation. However, evidence of its effectiveness is mixed, and it may not be safe for everyone, such as those with high blood pressure or glaucoma.
The 2017 clinical guidelines from the American College of Physicians (ACP) state that, while inversion and other traction therapies do not appear harmful in otherwise healthy people, there is little good-quality evidence for their effectiveness over other techniques.
In this article, we look at how inversion therapy works and the possible benefits and risks of this treatment.
How does inversion therapy work?
The theory behind inversion therapy says that by inverting a person so that their feet are above their head, it is possible to reverse the effect of gravity on the body. Gravity causes muscles, joints, and bones of the back to compress the spine over time, contributing to chronic back pain.
Inversion therapy is thought to decompress the spine, much like gentle massage or physical manipulation, and could allow people to find some relief from symptoms such as chronic back pain.
Inversion therapy must always be done under a doctor’s supervision.
Types of inversion therapy
Inversion therapy requires special equipment, such as specialized chairs, tables, or gravity boots. However, a person can also practice inversion therapy without equipment by doing certain yoga poses and exercises.
Inversion equipment is relatively inexpensive depending on the brand and builds quality. However, most insurance companies will not cover the cost of alternative therapies.
Inversion equipment includes:
Inversion tables. Swivelling tables that enable a person to hang securely upside down with their back resting on a bed. This position mimics the standing position, only upside down.
Inversion chairs. A person sits in the chair and straps themselves in before being turned upside down. Some people think that this sitting position is more beneficial, as it puts less pressure on the leg joints.
Gravity boots. Gravity boots are fundamentally sturdy ankle boots that allow a person to hang upside down by their feet. They provide more freedom and manoeuvrability than other inversion equipment.
Yoga instructors may recommend inversion postures to help relieve pressure on the back. Postures include headstands, shoulder stands, and poses such as the Dolphin or Plow.
These are advanced postures that should always be done under the supervision of a trained yoga instructor.
Potential benefits of inversion therapy
According to the 2017 clinical guidelines from the ACP, the evidence for the benefits of traction therapies, including inversion therapy, is not conclusive.
However, some people who practice inversion therapy themselves or offer the service in their clinical practice, find there are a few potential benefits to making a habit out of inversion.
Improve spinal health
Gravity puts pressure on the spine and muscles in the back that keep the body upright, causing the spine to compress over time.
Physical manipulation of the spine, massage, and muscle-strengthening techniques are often used to release compression. Holding the body upside down might stretch the spine in a similar way to these techniques.
Using inversion equipment or doing specific yoga poses every day may improve the overall health of the spine and ligaments and reduce pressure on the muscles in the area.
Ultimately, this could translate to more comfortable movements and a more open and flexible body.
Reduce chronic back pain
Many people who use inversion therapy to relieve chronic back pain are looking for a gentle, non-invasive way to treat their pain. Inversion therapy may ease the pressure on weight-bearing joints and allow them to rest and recuperate.
The decompressing effects of inversion therapy could potentially help with many sources of back pain, such as disc or joint pain. Decompression may also reduce the intensity of any muscle spasms in the back.
A 2012 second study published in Disability and Rehabilitation, found that using an inversion device reduced the need for surgery in some people with lumbar discogenic disease, which is a condition that causes the discs in the back to become thin and weak. However, this study only looked at 26 people, so more research is needed.
A person should always listen to the advice of their doctor or chiropractor about the best treatments for their specific back problems.
Risks of inversion therapy
Hanging upside down decreases the heart rate while increasing blood pressure and can put pressure on the eyeballs and inner ear.
Because of this, inversion therapy is not recommended for people with:
People with conditions that affect the head may also want to avoid inversion therapy.
Inversion therapy may also be unsuitable for people who are taking blood clotting medications or blood pressure medications.
Inversion therapy is not recommended if a person is pregnant.
Some people may find inversion therapy an effective, short-term pain relief from symptoms of back pain. It is relatively inexpensive, though few insurance providers will cover the cost of equipment.
Inversion therapy, or other alternative treatments, should not be seen as guaranteed methods of treatment, but rather as supplements to medical advice from a doctor. Anybody doing inversion therapy must do so under the guidance of a doctor. Anyone who notices any side effects or worsening symptoms should stop the treatment.
People should not see inversion therapy as a long-term treatment option or a way to avoid medical treatment. Doctors may also be able to recommend at-home exercises and simple treatments for back pain.