Does Inversion Therapy Work?
'Can Hanging Upside Down Have An Upside?'
How can we define if inversion therapy actually works? How has inversion therapy improved to the many options of inversion boots, inversion tables or inversion chairs that we have today in 2020?
The Short Answer –
When conducted safely, inversion therapy has been shown to be effective in achieving 3 things – decompression of the spine, increased blood flow/ circulation and drainage of your lymphatic system.
However, get it wrong and the dangers are considerable and varied. Today we ask – is the clinical data enough to support it’s continued use in 2020 – does inversion therapy work?
Does Inversion Therapy Work – The Risks
In today’s world, inversion therapy is a very different prospect to what it used to be.
Traditionally, inversion meant being hung upside down with all your blood rushing to your brain.
The theory is that over time (during normal living), the weight of gravity pushes your spine down and compresses the vertebrae (bones). This ultimately puts pressure on the huge number of nerves running through your back and up your spinal column, causing considerable pain.
One potential answer was often seen as reversing the process by hanging the individual upside down and therefore letting their weight pull their spine back out. This should effectively lengthen your spine again.
The effect of being upside down was also seen to have some positive effects for your circulation and your lymphatic system. Again here the ‘theory’ was that the increased blood flow helped move stagnant blood and that gravity would help your lymphatic system to drain.
Unfortunately, hanging someone frequently by the ankles, meant considerable weight on the ankles/ knees and hips. These were not used to taking weight at this angle and often resulted in other injuries.
There is also a long list of conditions/ issues that rule people out from going through inversion therapy safely. These include (but are not limited to) –
- General Spinal Injury (specifically a spinal fracture)
- An Implanted Device (such as a pace-maker)
- A Heart Problem (especially one with implications for pulmonary circulation)
- High Blood Pressure
- A History of Stroke
- An Existing Hernia
- A Detached Retina
- Middle Ear Infection
- Eye Infection
- Broken or Fractured Bones
- Pink Eye
So, for example, if your back pain was linked to being overweight, then inversion therapy is not a safe option.
In practice, this large number of exemptions actually takes out quite a proportion of the people who are most likely to need back pain relief or a boost to their lymphatic drainage.
Advancements Increasing The Effectiveness Of Inversion Therapy.
In response to all the injuries caused by hanging upside down with inversion boots, new inversion tables were created.
These allowed more stability and a greater level of comfort.
They took some of the pressure from other parts of the body by allowing inversion to take place at a whole range of angles, but still secured people to the table by their ankles.
Safer (but still effective) inversion…
New data then came out (covered below) that suggested a 70 degree inversion was plenty to secure all the benefits of inversion therapy, but could be significantly safer than being completely upside down.
Unfortunately, a lot of people would still incline to the maximum vertical position and the bulk of the stress was still on their ankles/ pelvis.
Inversion chairs were then launched. These allowed angles of up to 70 degrees.
Being in the sitting position also provided a few other key benefits –
- Much better balance recovery
- Much safer, gradual equalizing of blood pressure
- Reduced pressure on ankles, that frequently took a lot of pressure when hanging upside down – even when strapped to a table by them.
- Extra support for your back/ hips.
- A safer transition from inversion back to normal.
All of this meant, you could now use an inversion chair without necessarily having to have someone there to help you off at the end and make sure nothing went wrong.
And given that most of the pain relief is fairly short-term (from hours to a few days depending on the individual), not having to have someone there is quite a big bonus.
Ultimately therefore from the extremely risky days of hanging upside down like a bat, to the much more controlled and safer inversion chairs of today, things have evolved to provide much more effective therapy. But is there any evidence the concept of being tipped up actually helps?
Does Inversion Therapy Work – The Clinical Data
There a number of important studies to consider when analysing if inversion therapy works. You have to forgive some of the trials for being flawed due to a lack of patient numbers or other inefficiencies and instead take out the main suggestive learnings.
Rather than write around them, I thought it might be more beneficial to summarise the 3 most important individually as follows –
– Reducing Need For Surgery –
This was a pilot trial on patients awaiting lumber disc surgery. Some patients were given physio, while others received traction plus physio.
The addition of intermittent traction therapy actually reduced the numbers requiring surgery six weeks later. There were however only 23 people included in the trial.
– ‘Less Than 90 degrees Also Effective’ –
47 people with chronic lower back pain tried 3 minute inversion therapy at various angles. After 8 weeks, an angle of 60 degrees was found to reduce back pain, while increasing flexibility and strength.
– Overall Effectiveness –
They completed a review of 16 different clinical papers on or around the topic of inversion therapy and concluded that removing gravity could have a positive effect on back pain, as well as potentially reducing the need for spinal surgery in patients.
The Final Word –
In summary then, yes inversion therapy does work, albeit for short-term pain relief.
It might be my personal first choice, but some people swear by it as a method of back pain relief, while others report feeling like a new person.
As with all pain relief, it is highly subjective – what provides a miracle for one person, will do little for another.
Perhaps the most important take away from the research is that while general inversion therapy is fraught with risk, inversion with an inversion chair offers a much more stable alternative.
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1. Prasad KS1, Gregson BA, Hargreaves G, Byrnes T, Winburn P, Mendelow AD. (Jan 2012). Inversion therapy in patients with pure single level lumbar discogenic disease: a pilot randomized trial. Disability and Rehabilitation.
2. Yong-Seok Jee. (Jan 2013). The effect of inversion traction on pain sensation, lumbar flexibility and trunk muscles strength in patients with chronic low back pain. Isokinetics and Exercise Science
3. Abhijeet A. Raut, Prof. S. T. Bagde (2014) Inversion Therapy & Zero Gravity Concept: For All Back Pain Problems. Journal Of Mechanical And Civil Engineering.
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