Turning Back Pain and Sciatica Upside Down

Could an inversion table and inversion therapy help your low back pain, leg pain, and sciatica?

Have you heard about inversion therapy? It’s a non-surgical treatment your doctor may recommend you try before moving to more invasive options. Many people with low back pain and sciatica find that inversion therapy performed on an inversion table provides symptom relief.

Inversion tables don’t require the use of inversion boots or hanging upside down. Although inversion boots and racks are popular, that type of inversion therapy is not for the novice—it’s best for people who are in superb health and athletic condition. This article is about inversion table therapy, an alternative that doesn't require turning completely upside down.

inversion tableAn example of an inversion table intended for home use. By Giorgostr - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12277684.

An Ancient Therapy Practiced in Modern Times

Inversion therapy is not a new idea. In fact, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, witnessed what is now inversion therapy as early as 400 BC. The goal of inversion therapy is to defeat the effects of gravity—the downward force that pulls everything toward earth's center.

How Inversion Therapy Works

People who suffer back pain and sciatica find inversion table therapy turns gravity upside down, causing this natural force to decompress the spine.

Inversion therapy works a bit like spinal traction. For example, in a standing position, gravity pulls the spine downward compressing the discs, vertebral bodies, nerves, and other structures. Inversion therapy changes the physical dynamics with gravity's assistance to help relieve spinal compression. The result? The spine is temporarily lengthened and pressure on your back is reduced.

While the theory behind inversion therapy makes it seem like the ultimate non-surgical solution to compressive back pain, research is a bit more mixed. The American College of Physicians’ (ACP) 2017 guidelines say that inversion therapy needs more evidence to show its effectiveness against other non-invasive spine treatments.1

On the other hand, one study found that nearly 77% of subjects who were candidates for spine surgery no longer needed surgery after using inversion therapy. For subjects who didn’t use inversion therapy, only 22% avoided surgery.2

Like all treatments, what works for you may not work for someone else. Even so, very rarely is a therapy a true “magic bullet.” Talking to your doctor about the pros and cons of each treatment as it relates to your condition and medical history is the best way to create the right expectations for you.

Other Benefits of Inversion Therapy

Many people report that inversion table therapy is a great way to stretch muscles and ligaments, reduce muscle spasms, and improve circulation. Stretching stimulates the lymph glands to increase the flow of lymphatic fluids, which is part of the body's waste disposal system. Similarly, cellular health depends on good blood circulation to deliver nourishment and remove waste.

Inversion table therapy also helps relieve motion sickness and stress. In addition, the body becomes more aware of its spatial orientation and balance when the inner ear is stimulated during inversion.

Plus, it is not necessary for the body to be positioned completely upside down to gain benefits from inversion therapy. Unlike antigravity boots used with an inversion rack, an adjustable inversion table offers the flexibility to choose the most comfortable angle.

Talking with Your Doctor About Inversion Therapy

Like anything that can affect your health, talk to your doctor before you start using an inversion table. This is important because certain medications and health conditions may make using an inversion table unsafe.

Your doctor may recommend against inversion table therapy if you have or are the following:

  • Obese
  • A detached retina
  • Fracture
  • Glaucoma
  • Heart condition (circulatory problem)
  • Hernia
  • Implanted device
  • Middle ear or eye infection
  • Osteoporosis
  • Pregnant
  • Spinal injury

There may be other medical conditions not listed that interfere with inversion therapy, so make sure your doctor knows about your all your medical conditions and current health state before starting.

Getting Started with Inversion Therapy

What is the best way to start your inversion therapy program? Slowly. Take it easy and take your time. Even at a 15-degree angle, your body will feel a mild muscular stretch and the benefits of increased blood and lymph circulation. Most people do not need to exceed 60-degrees, as the spine decompresses at this angle. Don't exceed what your body tells you.

Some of the higher quality tables include a sliding backrest and a locking mechanism that allows you to combine gentle stretching and exercise movements during inversion. This might include moving your head from side-to-side, stretching your arms overhead, or performing abdominal sit-ups or crunches. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about how often you can invert and specific movements to enhance your inversion therapy program.

Inversion Therapy: A Possible Addition to Your Non-surgical Spine Treatment Plan

For most types of spinal pain—including sciatica, joint pain, and low back pain—your doctor will want to try several non-surgical treatment options before discussing surgery. Inversion table therapy may be part of your conservative treatment plan, and it could even help delay or prevent the need for spine surgery. If you’re curious about whether this therapy may provide relief and help you enjoy your daily activities, talk to your doctor.

Updated on: 05/23/19
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Can Inversion Tables Help Your Low Back Pain?
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Can Inversion Tables Help Your Low Back Pain?

Inversion table therapy may help relieve back pain, sciatica, muscle tension, muscle spasms caused by degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, herniated disc, or facet syndrome. Always talk with your doctor before trying an inversion table.
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