Inversion tables may offer relief to patients struggling with low back pain. These reclining tables help stretch the muscles and soft tissue around the spine, and provide a slight pulling from gravity (traction) to take pressure off of the nerves and disc between bones of the spine (vertebrae).
The expanded FDA clearance signals that inversion tables are becoming a more mainstream therapy to treat common back problems. Research has shown that inversion tables help reduce pain, restore the normal space between vertebrae, and reduce the need for spinal surgery.2-4
The effect of inversion therapy on a disc is akin to dispensing toothpaste. If you apply too much pressure to the tube and squeeze out more than needed, you can often re-expand the tube by squeezing in the other plane and effectively cause some of the toothpaste to retract back in.
However, it is hard to predict whether these effects are temporary or last throughout the day. You certainly can feel some relief while on the device, but the minute you are off of it, gravity starts to work against you. Also, while it is unclear how long a person should use an inversion table.
How to Use Inversion Tables
For most of my patients, I recommend trying inversion therapy for at least two weeks for 10 minutes twice a day but not to go more than 45 degrees below horizontal. You can typically feel the effects of inversion therapy in as little as 20 to 30 degrees of recline.
Placing the table at a greater angle, where a person is fully upside down, is not advisable. Overly aggressive inversion may be counterproductive. For example, of a disc is already torn, full inversion may cause additional trauma. Thus, inversion can be too much of a good thing, and these tables may cause further damage if not used properly.
Who Should Not Use Inversion Tables?
Inversion tables are not recommended for people with lumbar instability such as a spinal fracture or spondylolisthesis. Also, inversion tables are best used to treat low back pain only; people with neck pain may benefit from cervical traction devices (eg, pneumatic and ramp devices).
In addition, inversion tables are not recommended for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, or glaucoma, abdominal or inguinal hernia, osteoporosis, hip/knee conditions, or who are pregnant.
Always speak with your physician before trying inversion tables to make sure the treatment is right for you.