Back pain is a pretty common ailment, especially with martial artists and people who participate in high impact sports.
And one of the ways that scientists and the fitness community propose to solve this common table is with inversion therapy.
Inversion tables have been on the market for awhile and remain the darlings of TV infomercials.
And you’re not imagining things if you notice that innovative health and wellness products entering the consumer marketplace go from popular concept to scrutinized idea. Inversion tables are no different.
In this article, we explore the theory behind inversion therapy and seek to answer the question of whether or not inversion therapy (with inversion tables) are an effective form of treatment for back pain.
The History and Purpose Behind Inversion therapy
There are a myriad of contemporary theories about why inversion therapy tables work or don't work. But in fact, researchers believe the concept behind decompressing the back to find pain relief goes back to Hippocrates, the father of medicine. He invented the Hippocratic Bench, the first version of the inversion table, around 400 BC.
This structure was used to do everything from stretching the skeletal system to keeping it aligned when bones were broken. Like today’s inversion tables, patients reclined on this contraption and, depending upon the diagnosis, ropes were used to constrain body parts in need of rehabilitation, holding them in place as pullies did the work of tightening or loosening pressure. The contraption looks a lot like a torture device.
Was Hippocrates an innovator? Definitely, though his invention was both rudimentary and not very comfortable for bench occupants. Further, these rigs didn't uniformly apply to the areas in need of relief. Hippocrates improved on the device and further developed his idea into a fully-functioning adjustment table that required ladders and pulleys to allow gravitational forces to remedy joint and spine issues.
You can see an illustration of the device invented by Hippocrates below:
Nobody is sure why this concept wasn’t resurrected until the 1960s when holistic practitioners sought ways to deal their patients' pain that didn’t involve drugs or surgery. Dr. Robert Martin, a California chiropractor, adapted Hippocrates' concept to create the modern-day inversion table and by 1980, inversion therapy had been adopted by alternative medicine professionals. Today’s inversion tables carry on that tradition.
The Science Behind Inversion Therapy
Given roots as deep as those reaching back to Hippocrates, it seems reasonable that scientists and medical professionals would want to know exactly how inversion tables, weight boots and other devices that rely upon gravity work their magic.
During inversion therapy, patients are literally turned upside-down for seconds to minutes at a time during treatments to take the pressure off the spine, bones and even nerve roots.
As gravity work its magic on the body, the spine "decompresses" and the spinal column relaxes as spacing between each vertebrae stretches, thereby reducing pressure on discs so pain is alleviated. The inversion table is a rudimentary form of spinal traction, but relief is found not from increasing the distance between discs but from the dramatic stretch to which the body is treated that provides the actual relief.
Empirically, people do at least get temporary relief after spending a bitbit of time on an inversion table. Joe Rogan, the famous UFC commentator, podcast host, and comedian speaks very highly of inversion therapy. On his podcast with Jesse Ventura, he said:
“I've suffered from several back injuries over the years (bulging discs) from jiujitsu and working out. One of the things that has helped me a lot is using one of those Teeter Inversion Tables. I strap my ankles into this thing and I hang upside down - it's a great way to decompress your back and get rid of pain.”
So there is empirical evidence of it working, but what is the science behind it? Does it support its use? Although there isn't many studies of its efficacy, we were able to dig up some.
A Sampling of Scientific Studies
Study #1: “Inversion therapy in patients with pure single level lumbar discogenic disease: a pilot randomized trial”.
Six researchers participated in this study focused on backache and sciatica triggered by protuberant disc disease. The authors cite surgery as the usual treatment and acknowledge that traction for sciatica is neither effective nor recommended.
Designed to measure the effectiveness of inversion tables vs. surgery at the UK’s Regional Neurosciences Centre, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 26 participants were treated with either “physiotherapy or physiotherapy and intermittent traction with an inversion device.”
After six weeks, surgery was avoided in 76.9-percent of participants in the inversion group. Doctors concluded that the inversion table significantly reduced the need for surgery based on study findings.
Study #2: Extension traction treatment for patients with discogenic lumbosacral radiculopathy: a randomized controlled trial.
A total of 64 patients took part in this randomized, controlled study that required a 6-month follow-up designed to determine the “effects of lumbar extension traction in patients with unilateral lumbosacral radiculopathy due to L5-S1 disc herniation.”
A 32-person control group was given hot packs and interferential therapy, while the remaining 32 used hot packs, interferential therapy and inversion therapy. After 10 weeks, investigators measured vertebral movements to determine progress and found “a significant difference.”
Those receiving anti-gravity treatment ended the study with less back and leg pain and increased mobility in affected areas. After six months, statistically-significant improvements remained in place while subjects receiving only hot packs and interferential therapy reverted to their previous aches and pains.
Study #3: Lumbar extension traction alleviates symptoms and facilitates healing of disc herniation.
While this study only takes into account the treatment of a single 56-year-old man suffering from chronic low back pain resulting from sciatica due to lumbar disc herniation, it is nevertheless significant.
Despite being previously treated by three chiropractors before becoming the subject of this clinical study, the patient began recovering during the 26 weeks of lumbar extension traction (inversion therapy). There was no relapse reported eight years after these treatments took care of his pain and discomfort.
Range of motion improvements in the lumbar region alone are considered by scientists involved in this study to be proof that by employing gravity-relieving inversion techniques, this patient “achieved a significant healing of herniation and reduction in symptoms not obtained following traditional chiropractic procedures alone.”
Is Inversion Therapy Right For You?
Like most treatments undertaken in pursuit of pain-free living that also allows one to enjoy full mobility and range of motion, that question depends upon whom you ask. The three clinical studies cited above all have positive outcomes as patients were treated with inversion therapy as all or part of their treatment plans.
Empirically, many people from a wide range of fields whose pain couldn’t be quelled by doctors or medicines found in inversion tables the perfect alternative—one that Dr. Edward R. Laskowski profiles in his Mayo Clinic blog post.
His conclusions? While inversion therapy may not be for everyone—particularly those suffering from conditions that can be exacerbated by hanging upside-down—Dr. Laskowski says that, in his opinion, while spinal traction isn’t likely to be effective for long-term relief, “people find traction temporarily helpful as part of a more comprehensive treatment program for lower back pain caused by spinal disk compression.”
More studies need to be done before inversion therapy can be accepted by mainstream medicine as a long-term solution to back pain. However, results look promising, especially for short-term relief.
Inversion therapy is not right for some people though.
For those diagnosed with high blood pressure, some heart conditions and select eye conditions, doctors warn patients to avoid anti-gravity equipment or risk headache, blurred vision, blood pressure spikes and even retina bleeds. Inversion tables are also contra-indicated for pregnant women.
If you are interested in getting an inversion table for yourself, go to our review of the best inversion tables.