Chronic pain is, unfortunately, all too common. From sitting at work, to carrying heavy objects (or toddlers!), to pregnancy, our bodies can get out of alignment. This (combined with a weak core) often leads to lower back pain. Inversion therapy with an inversion table or other inversion tools can help relieve back pain and has many other health benefits too.
What Is Inversion Therapy?
Gravity can cause vertebrae to compress, contributing to back pain and poor circulation. Inversion therapy is when a person’s feet are positioned above their head in order to reverse the effects that gravity has on the body.
As early as 3000 BC, yogis have used inversion to rebalance the body and improve system functions. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, also used inversion to help his patients. In the last half-century, inversion has been used to help patients with back pain and other gravity-related ailments.
Benefits of Inversion Therapy
Whether or not inversion therapy is really beneficial is under some scrutiny in the medical community.
The 2017 clinical guidelines from the American College of Physicians (ACP) state that there is little quality evidence to support the use of inversion over other therapies (though it’s not harmful to most healthy adults).
On the other hand, the clinical evidence that is available, along with the anecdotal evidence of practitioners and patients who have seen benefits (and my own experience), makes me think there must be something to inversion therapy.
Here are some of the ways that inversion can benefit the body:
Improved Lymphatic Drainage
The lymphatic system is vital to the health of the body, especially the immune system. Gravity and muscle contractions move lymph fluid through the body, sweeping away toxins and bacteria. Because many of us sit at desks all day (I’m guilty too!), there are fewer muscle contractions to move lymph fluid through the body. That means the only force that is moving lymph fluid is gravity and the lymph fluid stays in the lower part of the body.
Inversion helps move the lymph fluid through the body by using gravity in reverse. Instead of gravity moving lymph fluid to the feet, it moves it away from the feet and toward the upper body. Then, when you are no longer inverted, gravity helps move lymph fluid again.
Inversion can also improve circulation. A study published in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that inversion reduced muscle tension which can improve circulation and lymph movement.
Reduced Back Pain
Reduced muscle tension is a benefit in its own right, but it can also be helpful in reducing stress and pain. The late Dr. John E. Sarno of the New York Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine believed that most pain was rooted in psychological stresses. He believed that tension in muscles (due to stress) can trap waste and cause pain.
Many studies also show that inversion therapy can reduce back pain. A 2010 study that found decompression of the disc reduced back pain in patients.
Beyond just relieving pain, correcting spinal alignment helps protect nerve function, soft tissue health, and even brain health, health (see this podcast for more on that).
Improved Disc Health
As mentioned above, inversion helps increase the space between vertebral discs. This allows the discs to rehydrate and increase in nutrients. It also helps increase the shock absorption ability of the discs.
Gravity compresses the discs, making them less healthy (and even reduces your height!). When we lay down to sleep at night, the compression is reduced and we regain our height and disc health (unless there are misalignments that prevent this from happening). Inversion is another way to help regain the space between discs.
Reduce Nerve and Joint Pain
The space between the vertebral discs is where nerves live. When the discs are compressed, we can experience pain, pinched nerves, or sciatica. Increasing disc health helps avoid pinched nerves and the pain they cause. Additionally, improving disc health and the space between them can be beneficial in reducing pain from sciatica. In one study, using inversion reduced the need for surgery in 70 percent of patients with sciatic pain. In comparison, only 20 percent of patients found relief in the control group.
Realign the Spine
Many of us have misalignments from daily activities like sitting at a desk, sports, pregnancy, and carrying heavy objects. A misalignment is where a vertebra is out of place and the bone structure is no longer supporting the weight of the body. Soft tissues like ligaments and muscles have to pick up the slack.
Once a vertebra is out of alignment it can be held out of alignment by the muscles and ligaments around it. In this case, even laying down doesn’t reduce compression entirely. But inversion can reduce compression to zero, even when there is a misalignment. A study by Dr. Alf Nachemson found that inversion allowed discs to move back to their proper locations.
Inversion also improves flexibility. A 2013 study found that inversion improved lumbar (low back) flexibility and muscle strength. Both of these help keep the back in alignment.
Turn a Breech Baby
Inversion was one technique my midwife recommended to try and turn my breech baby. The idea is that you give baby a chance to pop back out of the pelvis and turn over. Of course, if you are worried about baby being breech you should only try this per your midwife’s or doctor’s orders. If you aren’t 100% sure baby is breech, inversion could actually cause a breech baby!
How to “Do” Inversion
There are a few ways to use inversion therapy. Here are some of the ways you can reap some or all of the benefits of inversion:
- Inversion boots – Also known as gravity boots, these attach to a bar (often in a doorway) and allow you to invert. You strap your feet in and then hang upside down. However, you must be strong enough to lower yourself and lift yourself back up. It’s also best practice to have a partner nearby even if you are strong enough to lower yourself. We used these before getting our inversion table.
- Inversion yoga – Inversion positions like headstand can give you many of the benefits of inversion therapy. However, like the inversion boots, you must be relatively strong to use this technique. I’ve been teaching myself to do a handstand using this headstand table.
- Lying on the floor with feet on a couch – This technique is not a full inversion but it can give you some of the benefits of inversion by raising the legs above the heart to move fluid out of legs. It’s easy to do for most people too.
- Lying on the floor with feet up against the wall – While not a true inversion, this can provide some of the benefits of inversion therapy. It’s a little more difficult than putting your feet on a couch but is still relatively easy to do (and doesn’t require any equipment).
- Fitness ball – You can use a fitness or peanut ball to get some of the benefits of inversion therapy. Sit on the fitness ball and roll your hips forward. Lay back on the ball (and roll if needed) until your head is lower than your hips.
- Inversion table – My husband used to have trouble with back pain so we have and use this Teeter inversion table which is easy to use and FDA approved. This tool allows you to fully invert even if you’re not strong enough to lower and lift yourself. It can also be used without a partner and gives you the full benefit of inversion. I prefer the inversion table because it is safest for most people and provides the full benefit of inversion.
While there aren’t any studies to support this claim, I have personally found that I sleep better after a session with the inversion table.
While inversion is safe for most healthy people, there are a few exceptions.
- Inversion raises the pulse and blood pressure so it’s not appropriate for those with heart issues.
- Glaucoma patients should not use inversion because inversion can cause pressure in the eyes.
- Inversion may not be safe for children or pregnant women. (Just the thought of being on an inversion table pregnant makes me cringe!)
- It also can cause headaches and blurred vision in some people.
Every person is different, so it’s always best to talk with your healthcare provider about whether inversion would be helpful to you or if you should avoid it.
Is an Inversion Table Worth It?
If you have chronic back pain and already pay for chiropractic care, physical therapy, or even medication, an inversion table may be a better investment (and has benefits for things other than back pain too!).
I always feel great after using my inversion table and feel like it helps improve my health. I also think there is good science to support its use (even if those studies are small or need more research). Because inversion is harmless for most healthy adults, it’s worth a try!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you tried inversion with an inversion table? What was your experience?