Inversion tables. The miracle medical tool made famous by QVC and telephone hotline numbers. The theory behind them is pretty straight forward and simple. Gravity pushes down on your spinal causing pressure to build up in your intervertebral disc and serve as an aggrevating factor for pain caused by disc herniations / protrusions.
It's easy to see why these devices have increased in popularity. It seems like a low-risk and easy way to treat your own spinal pain without the time and hassle of seeing a professional. Some people swear by it, others have a large paperweight taking up space in their garage.
So with that being said, here are some fast facts about inversion tables, and the theory behind their use.
1. Inversion therapy has been around for thousands of years
There have been ancient stone writings displaying people hanging upside down dating back to 4000 BC. Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, has documented tying patients in an upside down position as a form of treatment. Yogis have been promoting the benefits of inversion to affect the brain, improve circulation, and improve digestion.
2. Traction from inversion is effective for a select type of back pain
Most people use inversion therapy to treat back pain. However, there are many different causes and triggers for back pain, and the kind that inversion tables treat is in the minority of back pain cases.
People that have back pain related to a pinched nerve from a herniated disc have been known to get some relief from spinal traction.
When you hang upside down, the vertebrae in the spine get distracted which can release pressure on the spinal discs. When the discs have less pressure, the herniation may shrink enough to get off the nerve and provide some relief. But …
3. Back to Gravity: Why Inversion Alone Is not Sustainable
Being upside down can certainly create a distraction force on the spine and leave people feeling good … for a little while.
However, we are not bats, and we do not have the anatomy to spend our lives upside down. As soon as you put your body back into a gravity, those forces immediately start to compress you and create the situation you were trying to treat.
The moral of the story, is that if gravity is aggrevating your low back condition, then you have to do something that will make you functional when you are upright.
Additionally, patients who have glaucoma, blood pressure, and various reflux disorders may be at risk for injury and complications with prolonged inversion.
4. MRI results can be deceiving
So let's say that you have back pain and sciatica. You go get an MRI, and the MRI says that you have a disc herniation. The first impulse may be to get an inversion table or get decompression therapy, but the truth is that the disc may be a coincidental finding, and not the cause of your back pain.
Disc herniations do not necessarily cause pain. In fact, most of the people reading this post probably have a disc herniation, and almost certainly a disc protrusion, but have no pain what so ever.
If you do not understand the chart, here's what it means.
- 30% of people in their 20's have a bulging disc and have no pain.
- 50% of people in their 40's have a bulging disc with no pain
- 69% of people in their 60's have a bulging disc with no pain
- 84% of people in their 80's have bulging discs and have no pain.
The only factor that really determines your chances of having a bulging disc is your age.
If you've been told that you have a bulging disc, just keep calm, take a deep breath, and relax. You will get through this and you will be fine. It does not mean you need Traction. It does not mean you need decompression. It does not mean that you need anything. All it means is that you have a disc that's poking out of your spell.
5. Have an Inversion Table? Cool. Do not Go Crazy on them
Do not take this as fact, because this is all pure speculation on my part.
Beside exercise and food, I do not really believe in doing any form of care, therapy, or treatment on a daily basis. Whether that's a spinal manipulation, mobility work, stimulation, massage, etc, I'm a firm believer that a little can go a long way when done properly.
Traction has the ability to expand ligamentous tissue and make them more elastic. While this can help serve a purpose when you're having disc related back pain, going overboard with ligament deformation may create a situation where your spine is more susceptible to injury later on.
Having an inversion table may get you feeling good, but it's not something I'd rather on a a therapeutic basis. It affects a small part of the back pain population, and it's an easy tool to abuse so I would be careful with it's use.
When it comes to the spine, I always start off by establishing a strong foundation (Structural Correction), build strength around it (exercise / strength tripping), and provide great fuel (nutrition). Because there's no substitution for a stronger body.