Could you really ease back pain, sciatica, or kidney stones by tipping backward on a table with your feet in the air?
There’s some research to back up the value of inversion therapy for back pain and other disorders. You do it on an inversion table that looks more like a lounge chair. You lie on it, and then tip it so you lean back at an angle or are upside down. You hang this way for a few minutes.
What is inversion therapy?
Inversion therapy is also called spinal traction. The theory is that being upside down eases the pressure of gravity on your nerves and the disks in your spine. You use it to temporarily create more space between vertebrae that are smushed together.
You can use these tables to relieve:
- Back pain
- Muscle spasms or tense muscles
- Compressed spinal disks
- Sciatica pain
- Kidney stones
Some people also use them as a general way to gently stretch joints and muscles, or just to relax.
They aren’t the only way to do this therapy. You can also hang upside down with your feet strapped into gravity boots attached to a bar in a doorway. Fabric yoga slings help you hang upended, and then gently return you to an upright position. You can also do yoga poses that flip you over.
Does it work?
Evidence is mixed on whether or not these tables are an effective treatment for pain.
Back pain. Some people find that they offer short-term relief from low back or compressed disk pain. It’s probably not an effective long-term treatment. Studies suggest that inversion therapy works no better than sham treatments for relief in this area.
Sciatica. A 2012 study from England showed that inversion therapy combined with physical therapy was an effective treatment for sciatica pain from a protruding disk. It may reduce the need for back surgery.
Kidney stones. This type of therapy may be helpful for painful kidney stones. Research shows that it can help you clear stones when you do it along with diuresis. This procedure, which you have in the hospital to get fluids so you can pee, can help clear kidney stones. You do this combo therapy after a shockwave treatment helps to break up the stones.
What to expect
How do you use an inversion table? Lie back and strap yourself onto it so you're secure. Then you can tip over until your head is lower than your heart.
You can use one under the guidance of your physical therapist or at a clinic. They can show you how to do it and keep an eye on you while you hang out.
If you’re younger and don’t have any cardiovascular problems, you can use one at home, but follow these safety tips:
Have someone watch you. Don't hang upside down on a table without a spotter. Ask someone to watch you in case you can't get back up.
Don’t lean back all the way. Try to just tip back at a 30-degree angle, or as little as 10 degrees if you’re an older adult.
Buckle up. Use the safety straps or harnesses so you don’t slip off.
Do it in short spans. When you first do it, try it for 1 or 2 minutes once a day to see how you feel. Limit your inversion table sessions to 5 minutes twice a day.
Tip up slowly. After you’ve done it, come back up slowly to an upright position. If you jerk up too quickly, you may trigger muscle spasms or disk pain in your back.
Combine it. This therapy may be more effective if you also stretch and stay flexible. Ask your physical therapist or doctor to suggest stretches.
Possible side effects and interactions
Inversion tables cause your heartbeat to slow down and your blood pressure to rise. You'll feel the pressure in your eyes go up.
Because of these effects, they're risky if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma or any other eye disease, heart disease, a history of strokes, hiatal hernia, inner ear problems, or are pregnant.
If you have knee or hip arthritis, using an inversion table may put you at risk for a joint injury.
Check with your doctor before you use one. Be sure that this therapy is safe for you.
Where to buy inversion tables
There are many different kinds you can buy online or at specialty stores. Some have handles, safety straps, padded surfaces, or water bottle holders. You can fold some models for easy storage.
Bear in mind that they aren’t cheap: Prices range from $120 to more than $1,000 for the fanciest models.