Is Inversion Therapy Effective or a Scam?

Inversion therapy (a form of spinal traction) involves tilting or suspending one’s body upside down, typically from so called gravity boots or through the use of inversion tables. Inversion therapy is often promoted as being a cure for low back pain, something that ails millions and is one of the leading causes for physician visits in industrialized countries. Other common alleged therapeutic benefits include improved circulation, better posture, improved lymphatic function, and even improved brain function. But is any of this true? Are these health benefits really attainable by simply spending some time with your body inverted like infomercials would have you believe? Unfortunately, clinical inversion therapy research paints a far different picture than many product advertisements.

Inversion Therapy Research

The basic theory behind inversion therapy is that by inverting one’s body you stretch muscles and ligaments, unload and decompress the discs in your spine, relieve pressure on nerve roots, and increase the separation of vertebrae. However, the truth is that there simply is not very much high quality research out there pertaining to inversion therapy or spinal traction.  

In 2006, a Cochrane Review (systematic reviews of controlled medical trials) in summary concluded that there was no supporting evidence that traction was an effective treatment option for low back pain. This review was updated in 2007 and reviewed in 2010 and both efforts came to the same conclusion as the initial study.

In general, most of the studies testing the effectiveness of traction have been small and were designed poorly. It is not only unclear if traction is effective at all, but if it is how it should be administered (device, force, duration), and for what health conditions exactly is unknown. Spinal traction has not been shown to be effective for long term relief from back pain or to provide other significant health benefits. At best, medical research into spinal traction and inversion therapy can be considered to be inconclusive.

The typical health benefits claimed of inversion therapy are either completely false or wildly overstated, at least in terms of being proven by modern medical studies. In general, one of many problems with inversion therapy claims is that they don’t differentiate between what spinal or back conditions an individual, the root cause of them, and what treatment would be required. For instance, a herniated disc is quite different than spinal stenosis, but many products simply claim to be a cure for all low back pain, even though the treatment needed would be quite different. While many individuals report temporary relief from low back pain, this could likely be achieved from some simple stretches, and even more effective would be some lower back exercises.

If you do plan on trying out inversion therapy you should be aware of the possible risks involved and consider consulting with your physician beforehand.

Health Risks of Using Inversion Therapy

Individuals who have high blood pressure, heart disease, or eye diseases like glaucoma should not attempt inversion therapy as it can exacerbate these problems by increasing eye and blood pressure. Women who are pregnant are advised to abstain from the use of inversion equipment. For those with very weak bones, inversion could potentially lead to fractures. Perhaps ironically, inversion can also actually aggravate some back problems and spinal disorders. For some individuals, inversion can lead to headaches. To mitigate some of these risks, it is a good idea to have someone standing by the first time you try any inversion therapy just in case there is a problem.