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What Are the Risks and Benefits of Inversion Therapy?

What is inversion therapy?

Inversion therapy is a technique where you are suspended upside down to stretch the spine and relieve back pain. The theory is that by shifting the body’s gravity, pressure eases off the back while also providing traction for the spine.

For these reasons, inversion therapy may be beneficial for people with:

  • chronic lower back pain
  • poor circulation
  • sciatica
  • scoliosis

Read on to learn about the benefits, risks, and ways to practice inversion therapy.

Does research support the benefits of inversion therapy?

Those who support inversion therapy claim that the technique can resolve and prevent back problems. They also believe the stretching and circulatory benefits can help prevent future related health issues. But studies are inconclusive about if inversion therapy works.

In theory, inversion exercises should help the spine by:

  • creating more protective fluid around spinal discs
  • removing waste from the spine
  • decreasing inflammation
  • increasing blood circulation through surrounding muscles

Here’s what the research says about four potential benefits of inversion therapy.

1. Reduced back pain

One study looked at 47 people with chronic low back pain and inversion therapy. They practiced inversion therapy in 3 three-minute sets at different angles. The study found that inversion therapy at 60 degrees reduced back pain after eight weeks. It also improved torso flexibility and strength.

Read more: 7 ways to fix back pain at home »

2. Improved spinal health

In theory, inversion therapy can improve the space between your spinal discs and relieve pressure. Activities such as sitting, running, and bending can put pressure on these discs. The pressure increases the risk for back pain, a collapsed vertebra, and other complications.

The Mayo Clinic says that most well-designed studies found inversion therapy ineffective. But some people do report this form of stretching as a beneficial complementary treatment to back pain.

3. Increased flexibility

Practicing inversion therapy may also translate to better flexibility. Micromovements in the spine over time may help make the body stronger. You may find it easier to bend and reach. Inversion therapy is also thought to improve posture. This might be especially helpful if you have a desk job.

4. Reduced need for surgery

One 2014 study suggests that the zero-gravity nature of inversion can reduce compression. The authors of the study also noted that inversion may potentially prevent disability from back problems. This could also reduce the need for spinal surgery.

Another 2012 study from Disability and Rehabilitation found that people with lumbar disease reduced their need for surgery six weeks after using inversion therapy.

Despite these findings, it’s important to note that back problems are complex. Inversion therapy is not a guarantee against surgery nor should it be an alternative treatment for back pain. Talk to your doctor before trying inversion therapy as a treatment or form of exercise.

Types of inversion therapy devices and techniques

The types of inversion exercises a person can do depend on the equipment available.

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Inversion tables

Most tables are meant to help stretch your back for a few minutes at a time. You stand in them while upside down. But depending on the brand and model, you can also exercise in an inversion table. Some people choose the model that lets them do torso rotations and ab crunches. Inversion table costs vary by the number of features, with some costing as little as $100, and others costing upward of $400.

Inversion chairs

Inversion chairs use similar concepts as the table. The major difference is that a person will sit instead of stand. These run between $150 and $450, depending on the brand and model.

Gravity (inversion) boots

These “boots” are heavy-duty ankle wraps designed to work with inversion devices. It make it easier to hang upside down. Gravity boots run from $50 to $100 a pair.

Alternative methods

You may be able to gain the benefits of inversion therapy through certain yoga poses (asanas). These include:

  • shoulder stands
  • headstands
  • handstands
  • Plow pose

Such asanas require guidance from a certified yoga instructor. A yoga class may cost as little as $15, while one-on-one instruction may cost around $100 per session.

Another option is aerial yoga. Touted as “gravity-defying,” aerial yoga works with circus-like props to help you find more length and safety in their poses. Instructors are available to help you gain a better understanding of the poses. Class prices can range from $35 and up.

Talk to your insurance and healthcare providers before purchasing a table or classes. Not all insurance companies cover inversion therapy, especially since there’s little clinical evidence for it.

Read more: Gentle back pain stretches for older adults »

Risks of inversion therapy

Inversion therapy is deemed unsafe for people with certain conditions. The upside-down position increases blood pressure and decreases your heart rate. It also puts significant pressure on your eyeballs. Your doctor may not recommend inversion exercises if you have certain conditions, including:

Other factors that may cause complications include:

  • retinal detachment
  • pregnancy
  • obesity
  • use of blood clotting medications

It also takes time to adjust to inversion therapy. It’s best to start off in shorter increments (slowly building from one-minute sets to three) to get used to the process. This can help reduce side effects such as dizziness or muscle strain. Be careful not to overdo it.

The bottom line

Key points

  1. Inversion therapy is the practice of doing short stretches upside down to decompress the spine.
  2. It may provide short-term benefits such as relief from back pain and flexibility.
  3. There’s little evidence that inversion therapy provides long-term relief.
  4. The cost of an inversion table ranges from $100-450, depending on the brand.
  5. You may be able to experience the benefits through alternative methods such as yoga.

Consider the benefits and likelihood of back pain improvement with inversion therapy before purchasing a table, chair, or other related devices. You may also be able find a gym that has inversion therapy equipment for you to try before purchasing one. There’s no evidence to support that using an inversion table is more beneficial than performing inversion in standing or sitting positions.

Talk to your doctor if you’re interested in the benefits of inversion therapy. Your doctor can help determine if this therapy is right for you. They may also be able to offer you more effective treatments, home remedies, and exercises for back pain.

Read more: Upper back stretches you can do at your desk »

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