What is an Inversion Table?
An inversion table is exactly what it sounds like: a table designed to invert your body for the purpose of lengthening your spine.
The design of the table is fairly simple. It locks into place in a flat position, allowing you to climb onto the table easily. At one end, there will be straps or boots that will lock your ankles and/or feet in place. When you release the lock on the table, it will invert—lowering your head and raising your feet. Thanks to the straps, you will be held securely in place, hanging upside down to provide the benefits of inversion therapy.
Do Inversion Tables Really Work?
On the face of it, inversion therapy seems like a very strange sort of treatment. After all, if hanging upside down worked, why don’t we do it more often? Why hasn’t it become a more popular treatment?
Well, here’s the truth: Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine”, spoke of inversion therapy as far back as 400 BC. At its core, inversion therapy is intended to counteract the effects of gravity, which pull downward on our spines. By inverting our bodies, we allow gravity to elongate our spines rather than compress them.
Inversion therapy is traditionally used to treat lower back pain, everything from sciatica to slipped discs. By letting gravity elongate the spine, inversion tables help to reduce the pressure on your spinal column and the muscles holding it upright. It’s a decompression that separates the discs, nerves, vertebral bodies, and other structures in your spine. By reducing the pressure on your spine, inversion therapy is intended to relieve lower back pain.
The question is: does the therapy actually work?
The answer is a bit less cut-and-dry than most people might like…
One doctor of the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation states, “Inversion therapy doesn't provide lasting relief from back pain, and it's not safe for everyone… Well-designed studies evaluating spinal traction have found the technique ineffective for long-term relief. However, some people find traction temporarily helpful as part of a more comprehensive treatment program for lower back pain caused by spinal disk compression.”
The American College of Physicians stated 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.”
According to Harvard Medical School, “A 2006 Cochrane Review (a summary of evidence from randomized trials) concluded that there was no evidence to recommend traction for the treatment of low back pain.”
As you can see, experts pretty much agree that there is no conclusive evidence to indicates long-term health benefits of inversion therapy. However, most of the above-mentioned resources agree that there are “short-term benefits”—specifically, relief from lower back pain—caused by inversion therapy.
It may not be the ultimate long-term solution to your back problems, but if you’re dealing with a muscle spasm, a slipped disc, or some other acute lower back pain, an inversion table may be just what you need to provide temporary relief until you can get to a doctor for proper physical therapy.
Benefits of Inversion Tables
As mentioned above, there is no conclusive (proved beyond any scientific doubt) evidence that inversion therapy is truly effective. However, there are a number of potential benefits that you may discover by using this treatment:
Better Spinal Health – Inversion therapy that can help to elongate the spine may be effective at improving spinal health, similar to the way that spinal muscle-strengthening and spinal massage techniques help. Basically, it may be able to restore healthy, efficient movement to your spine, reducing your risk of back pain.
Decrease Need for Surgery – A study dating back to 2012 found that chronic back pain sufferers that used inversion therapy regularly were less likely to require back surgery. 77% of patients that underwent the inversion therapy avoided surgery, while only 22% of those in the control group were able to avoid surgical intervention.
Granted, this was a relatively small group study (just 26 people), that evaluated people with a very specific spinal problem (lumbar discogenic disease, which weakens and thins out the spinal discs). But there’s no denying the evidence, which clearly indicates that inversion therapy is a good way to improve spinal health.
Reduce Chronic Pain – There is some evidence that inversion therapy may be effective for treating chronic back pain. One study found inversion traction at an angle higher than 60% helped to not only reduce chronic back pain, but increased lumbar flexibility and isokinetic trunk extension after just 8 weeks.
Inversion therapy is a non-invasive method of pain relief, and it can ease the pressure on weight-bearing joints. For those suffering from chronic back pain, it can be a potentially effective method of reducing pain—at least in the short-term.
Better Flexibility and Mobility – As your spine compresses, you lose a lot of range of motion and flexibility in the joints between the spinal discs. The best way to counteract this is through exercises and training that enhances mobility and flexibility. However, the elongation of your spine caused by inversion therapy may also be able to increase your movement.
Not only can elongating your spine improve your posture, but it will stretch out those discs and prevent them from compressing too tightly together. The result could be easier movement and greater flexibility.
Relieve Pinched Nerve – A pinched nerve is basically excess pressure placed on your spinal nerves by herniated disks or swollen back muscles. To reduce the pain, you need to decompress the area.
Which is exactly what inversion therapy does! When you hang upside down on the inversion table, you elongate your spine and reduce the pressure all along your spinal column. Inversion therapy is often used to treat the problem of pinched nerves specifically thanks to the decompressive power of the treatment.
Better Circulation – As you hang upside down, your heart has to adapt to the new position and compensate to keep your blood flow as consistent as possible. You’ll feel like all the blood is rushing to your head, which may lead to short-term boosts to your brain function and enhanced mood. When you return to normal, you might find that your circulatory system works better overall, at least for a few hours after inversion.
Note: Inversion poses in Yoga have been linked to enhanced mood and reduced feelings of stress and anxiety. Using an inversion table may have similar effects!
Stretch Muscles and Ligaments – Tight, knotted muscles can cause a whole different type of lower back pain, but inversion therapy can help to stretch out those muscles and loosen the knots. Same for the ligaments and tendons in your joints. Gravity will work to stretch everything, thereby increasing your range of motion and flexibility.
Stimulated Lymph Flow – Did you know that stretching can stimulate your lymph nodes? Not only will this help to increase the flow of lymphatic fluids, but it can increase the elimination of waste products collected by lymphatic fluid and stored in the glands.
Risks of Inversion Tables
Unfortunately, using an inversion table or undergoing any sort of inversion therapy is not without its risks. It’s important that you understand that there are some potentially serious dangers of using this type of treatment.
It’s critical to know that hanging upside down can have serious effects on your heart. First and foremost, it can decrease your heart rate, but it can also increase your blood pressure. For those with existing cardiovascular problems or hypertension, doctors recommend avoiding inversion therapy. The same for people with a history of strokes—the risk of problems is just too high!
Anyone taking medications to clot their blood should avoid inversion therapy, as should those taking medications to control blood pressure.
The rise in blood pressure caused by inversion therapy can cause a rise specifically in your eyes and ears. Those with detached retinas are recommended to avoid the therapy at all costs, as are those with pink eye, glaucoma, and ear infections. Pretty much any sort of head condition can be worsened by inversion therapy, so be aware of that before you get on the inversion table.
It should go without saying that anyone with broken bones should avoid using inversion therapy. Gravity could pull on the healing bone and separate it, causing a re-fracture that could seriously set back recovery. Those with osteoporosis should steer clear—there’s a risk that the inversion could break or damage your bones, specifically your feet, ankle, and leg bones.
One video on YouTube explained some of the dangers of inversion, how the blood rushing to your head can rupture blood vessels or trigger a hemorrhage in your brain. Asphyxiation, or lack of oxygen, can result from the added weight placed on your lungs by your lower organs.
Those with hernias are also counseled against using inversion tables, and anyone with obesity. If you have an implanted device or a serious spinal injury, you should also be very cautious with any sort of inversion therapy. And definitely, DEFINITELY avoid the treatment if you are pregnant!
What You Need to Know About Inversion Therapy
The first step is buying an inversion table and setting it up in your home, but once that’s done, what comes next? Below, we answer a few questions that you need to know about the therapy:
Should I wear specific clothing to invert? Absolutely! You want to wear something comfortable and loose, but the really important thing to wear is athletic or tennis shoes. Proper shoes will give your feet and ankles more support when they are strapped in place. NEVER invert bare-footed!
How often should I invert? There isn’t really a “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question. Some people invert once every couple of days, while others invert several times a day. Ideally, you want to invert when you’re feeling a twinge or ache in your back, as gravity will help to loosen up sore, stiff, or knotted muscles. If you have chronic back pain, you may find that inverting multiple times a day can help to combat the pain. However, you should listen to your body when you invert. If you do it too much, you may find yourself dealing with nasty side effects (including dizziness, headaches, nausea, high blood pressure, and more).
How long should I invert? NO MORE than 5-10 minutes! As you saw above, inversion therapy does come with some risks, and those risks get riskier the longer you spend inverted.
Newbies should start off with just a minute or two until their bodies grow accustomed to relaxing while inverted. Once you’re feeling comfortable with it, go up to 3 to 5 minutes, and see how your body reacts.
Some experts say that frequency is more important than duration—multiple shorter periods of inversion throughout the day could be more effective than one long inversion session. Plus, the risk of side effects is lower when your inversion sessions are shorter.
When should I invert? It’s recommended that you avoid inverting first thing in the morning or too late at night. In the morning, you’re fresh out of bed, so your body is adjusting after a full night of rest and recovery. Your blood pressure is also higher in the morning. Usually, it’s best you wait a couple of hours until inverting.
At night, inverting just before going to sleep can raise your blood pressure, which can make it harder to fall asleep. Your best time is an hour or two before you get to sleep—that way, you get the pain relief, but without the rise in blood pressure.
Can I stretch while I invert? Absolutely! In fact, it’s recommended that you take advantage of your time upside down to add in a few neck, shoulder, arm, and back stretches. You’ll find that the decompression of your spine can do wonders to loosen up knotted muscles and tight joint tissue. Add in a few stretches, and you’ll walk away from your inversion session feeling a whole lot better.
Is there anything I can do to make my inversion more effective? You can try using acupressure nodes on the table’s surface, which will apply pressure directly to specific parts of your spine and body for more effective decompression. Vibration cushions can help to reduce muscle tension and really relax your body.
Is there a “correct” posture for inverting? Most experts recommend raising your arms over your head, as the weight of your arms will pull on your spine to elongate it more efficiently. However, if this position causes you pain, you can keep your arms by your side or fold them atop your chest.
Can Inversion Tables Make You Grow Taller?
It’s an old wives tale that “hanging upside down will help you grow taller”. Your body’s skeletal structure will only grow exactly as large as your DNA has programmed it to. Inversion tables won’t make you taller, plain and simple.
However, and this is a big one, the decompression of your spine and stretching of your muscles will extend your spinal column. Over years, our spines tend to compress due to bad posture and strain, so we start shrinking one millimeter at a time. By elongating your spine, you may be able to “recover” some of the height you’ve “lost” over the years. It’s not actually growing taller, but more of a restoration of healthy spinal length and better posture caused by inversion therapy.
Other Inversion Therapy Methods
Inversion tables aren’t the only way that you can try inversion therapy at home. There are other options you can consider:
Gravity boots – Also known as inversion boots, these are heavy-duty ankle wraps that hang from a suspension device or bar to allow you to hang upside down. They’re similar to the straps that secure you to the inversion table, but a full-foot boot designed to hook onto a bar or suspension device. They invert you fully upside down, which can be a bit more dangerous than the angle used by inversion tables. However, for those with a good deal of inversion experience, they can be a way to enhance the inversion therapy.
Inversion chairs – These work similar to inversion tables, but instead of standing up (arms and legs extended), an inversion chair works with you at a sitting posture (legs bent). They tend to run about the same price as an inversion table, and their effects are similar.
Yoga – Yes, Yoga can help to elongate and decompress your spine through the various inversion poses—Plow Pose, Shoulder Stands, Headstands, and Handstands. Many of the Yoga disciplines involve some form of inversion pose. They are challenging and require a high level of fitness, but they can be an excellent option to treat lower back pain without an inversion table.