Inversion tables have become a popular home remedy over the years for people looking to relieve back pain. But are they safe and do they even work? Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of them, but I know that tons of people swear by them. So when someone asked me the other day about whether or not I thought they should buy an inversion table to help them with their back pain – I decided to do some research. I wanted to get the facts so I could give informed advice on the subject.
Let’s start with what an inversion table is exactly. It’s a device that allows you to assume an inverted position at various angles so that you can provide what is known as “inversion therapy” – or spinal traction – to yourself. When you traction your spine, you’re essentially stretching it.
With traction, the space between your vertebrae is increased, allowing for pressure to be taken off both your nerve roots and discs, and in theory increase circulation to the area. While there are many ways to provide traction to your spine (you could hang from something, or have someone pull on your legs) – an inversion table secures your ankles in place – and as you increase your angle of inversion, your body weight and gravity provide the traction force.
Since inversion tables work by providing traction – the next thing we want to know is whether or not spinal traction is even safe or effective. Traction has been around for a very long time and used to treat both acute and chronic back pain. I’ve been a physical therapist for just over 20 years, and traction was a modality I used frequently and regularly when I first got out of school. But as with most medical interventions, we don’t get a true grasp on their efficacy until more research is done.
At this point, traction has been well-studied, and the verdict is that when it comes to short term pain relief, many report it to be successful as a means of temporary pain relief. But if a long term solution to back pain is what you’re looking for – you’re going to need more than traction.
Studies have shown that traction does not provide any long-term results when it comes to relieving back pain and improving function. And the research is inconclusive on whether or not traction can actually reduce the size of a herniated disc, which is what traction is most commonly used for. As far as safety is concerned, there are generally minimal side effects.
However, it is possible to experience tissue damage and occasionally a worsened herniated disc if traction is applied incorrectly. For all of these reasons, I rarely use traction in my practice any more and you see it less frequently used because there are so many other interventions that are more effective.
OK – so we’ve determined that inversion therapy/spinal traction isn’t effective in providing lasting relief from back pain, but it can work to provide temporary relief – so why not get an inversion table?
Well, there are some other important factors to consider. With inversion therapy, you’re hanging upside down in the head-down position. When you remain inverted for more than a couple minutes, your heartbeat slows, your blood pressure increases, and the pressure within your eyeballs jumps dramatically. Therefore, inversion therapy is not safe for anyone with high blood pressure, heart disease, or glaucoma.
Let’s say you don’t have any of these problems, another factor to consider is the time spent doing something that we know will only provide you temporary relief. Why not do something for your back that is going to have proven, more lasting impacts – such as walking and exercising.
Ok – so there you have it. Using an inversion table does come with risks, but if you don’t have high blood pressure, heart disease, or glaucoma – and your primary focus is on intermittent and short term pain relief – then an inversion table could be a good solution for you.
But if you’re someone who wants a solution to your back pain that lasts, I’d recommend not wasting your time or money. Focus instead on getting to the root cause of your back problem and finding a movement-based solution.
Research consistently shows corrective movements and exercise as one of the best choices for long-term back pain relief. Spend your time and money on finding a solution like this that works for you instead.
Dr. Carrie Jose, Physical Therapist and Pilates expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To get in touch, or get a free copy of her guide to back pain, email her at [email protected] or call 603-380-7902.