Can an Inversion Table Help Your Back Pain?

If you have back pain, an inversion table can be more than an expensive novelty. Here’s how inversion therapy might be able to help your back.

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On a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, housewife Garcelle Beauvais gave her castmate a new home tour.  While admiring the décor in Garcelle's bedroom, the castmate spied a swing-like chair next to the bed and gave Garcelle a bashful, blushing glance.

Man using inversion table for back painEvidence is beginning to point toward inversion therapy temporarily easing back pain.

It was then that Garcelle realized that her castmate had seen the odd-looking contraption and gotten the wrong idea. She laughed and explained that the item was not meant for those kinds of bedroom activities. Instead,  It was an inversion table that she used for her back issues. 

What Is an Inversion Table?

Inversion therapy (or spinal traction) is an at-home remedy for relieving back and neck pain. Inversion tables allow the user to hang upside down (invert) with support for a while. Jason Highsmith, MD, FACS, a board certified and fellowship-trained neurosurgeon of Carolina Neurosurgery & Orthopedics, says, "At-home inversion tables offer patients a convenient way to use traction to alleviate back pain. These tables take gravitational pressure off the nerves in the spine by temporarily pulling the bones apart, increasing space between the vertebrae so that the nerves have more room.”

Inversion therapy offers people with back pain a non-narcotic treatment alternative for relieving their pain. Inversion therapy can relieve patients who suffer from a wide range of back issues, including:

While some patients think inversion therapy is beneficial, others have not found this type of treatment effective. Dr. Highsmith says, “Although there was a study that suggested long-term benefits can be derived from inversion therapy, most of the research indicates that the inversion therapy provides temporary relief.”

Why Have Inversion Tables Gotten So Popular?

At-home inversion therapy has become increasingly popular for people who have back pain. Dr. Highsmith believes that the manufacturers of inversion tables have done an excellent job of marketing the product in recent years.

He explains, "These tables have appeared more frequently on social media posts (such as Instagram.) The distribution has also increased. Initially inversion tables were only sold at sporting goods stores but now you can find them at places like Amazon and Craig's List.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has probably also had a role in the increased demand for inversion tables. At the beginning of COVID, medical offices were closed for non-essential treatment, and once they reopened, many people still didn't want to leave their homes for medical issues that weren't dire. Although pricey, inversion tables can be cost-effective if usage decreased the need to seek pain treatment from a spine specialist.

Is Inversion Therapy for Back Pain Safe?

Before using (or investing money) in an at-home inversion table, it is essential to check with your primary care physician and back specialist.

“It’s important to know what is causing the back problems before deciding on a treatment (at home or in-office.) This includes having an exam by a medical professional and MRI imaging of the spine to confirm the diagnosis,” says Dr. Highsmith.

“While these tables work well for people with disc issues, using inversion therapy when you have a tear can cause more actually cause more damage,” he adds.“The body weight from being upside down can result in more tearing.”

Inversion therapy is not recommended for people with certain medical conditions. As anyone who has attempted a handstand knows, staying upside down for more than a couple of minutes can make you start to feel dizzy and notice an increase in the pressure that builds around your eyeballs. It also slows your heartbeat and increases your blood pressure. For that reason, patients who are pregnant or have high blood pressure, heart disease, or glaucoma should not use inversion therapy.

Once you have received clearance from your physician to try inversion therapy, Dr. Highsmith suggests testing it out with an expert before making a purchase. He explains, "Some licensed gyms, chiropractors, and physical therapists have the equipment on hand to try out." It's also a good idea to have a spotter for the first few uses so that a person can get the hang of the equipment (and not be left hanging.)

Inversion Table Buying Guide

If you decide to invest in an inversion table, be sure to do some research. Inversion tables range in price from  $100 to $600 depending on the features, such as weight capability and backrest support.  As discussed on the website Money, “While all inversion tables have the same basic functionality, they vary in terms of ankle support, inversion control, and backrest padding.”

Inversion tables take up a lot of space so be sure you have enough room before purchasing. Although the size can vary, all inversion tables are heavy and typically are around 50” wide and 60” tall (and up to 80” tall when in use.)

Although purchasing a pre-used inversion table can be cost effective, proceed with caution. Dr. Highsmith says, "I had a patient buy one of these tables through a reseller. It turned out that the manufacturer had recalled this specific model. My patent didn't get the notice and wound up getting severely injured because the table lacked the stability to support him adequately and he fell off."        

Moderate Inversion Works Best for Back Pain

Dr. Highsmith notes, “It is too much of a good thing to be overly aggressive with this type of treatment. You don’t need to be fully upside down to reap the rewards of inversion therapy.”

Be sure you are secured by the ankle straps before leaning back. Go slowly. Dr. Highsmith says, “When you start to feel some relief, stop there. Usually patients only need to be about 30 to 40% below horizontal to reap the benefits of inversion therapy.”

In the beginning, spend less than a minute tilted backward to see how you feel and work your way up gradually. If you feel dizzy or have an increase in pain, stop immediately. If you feel okay, work up to longer stretches.  Dr. Highsmith recommends no more than 10-15 minutes at a time, up to two times daily for acute pain.

While inversion therapy may not be a cure for back issues, nor does it work for everyone, it can be helpful and worth further investigating if you have chronic back issues.

 

Updated on: 07/08/21
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