Hanging upside down works for Batman. But does it have health benefits for non-superheroes?
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Inversion tables — which suspend a person upside down — are said to relieve back pain by taking pressure off the spine. Whether or not they work is another question.
Pain management specialist Haren Bodepudi, MD, explains what the science says and what you should know before you fall heels-over-head in the name of pain relief.
Inversion table benefits
Inversion therapy is also known as spinal traction. Inversion tables allow you to strap yourself in and tilt backward at an angle or completely upside down.
The theory behind it is simple: Hanging upside down can take the pressure off the nerves of the spine and give the squishy disks between the vertebrae room to relax. Fans of inversion therapy say it can relieve problems including:
- Low back pain.
- Muscle spasms.
But inversion tables aren’t a slam-dunk for back pain. “The research is mixed,” Dr. Bodepudi says. “Some studies have found it can provide relief for some patients, but others haven’t found any benefit.”
And some people should definitely not try it. Hanging upside down can increase your blood pressure, so steer clear if you’re pregnant, have high blood pressure, heart disease or eye diseases such as glaucoma. And if you have acid reflux, tilting backward could make symptoms worse.
How to use an inversion table
If you think it’s worth a try, consider these pointers to stay safe:
- Talk to your doctor: “Since inversion therapy isn’t safe for everyone, talk to your physician to make sure you can use it safely,” Dr. Bodepudi says.
- Try it out in therapy: Physical therapists sometimes use inversion therapy in their practice. You might want to try it out in PT before you invest in a table for home.
- Have a spotter: Make sure someone else is around the first time you try it, in case you need help getting right side up again. You don’t want to get stuck with your feet in the air.
- Go small: To begin, spend just 30-to-45 seconds tilted backward, Dr. Bodepudi recommends. “It takes time to adjust to inversion therapy, so start with shorter increments,” he says. “If you don’t experience any dizziness or worsening pain, you can work your way up to longer stretches, as much as five minutes at a time.”
- Don’t overdo it: You don’t need to go fully vertical or spend lots of time to get benefits. Though studies found mixed results, research suggests that three minutes at a 60-degree tilt is the sweet spot for inversion therapy, Dr. Bodepudi notes.
- Don’t expect instant results: Some people find quick short-term relief from pain. But longer-term benefits could take as long as eight weeks to appear, so be patient, he says.
Other back pain relief options
Not everyone has the money or space in their home for an inversion table. But you can achieve similar spinal traction with stretches and yoga poses that ease pressure on the spine, Dr. Bodepudi says.
Consider inversion therapy one of many tools in your toolkit. “I wouldn’t recommend inversion therapy by itself for treating back pain,” he says. “But it’s something you might try in combination with other therapies, such as over-the-counter pain medications, physical therapy, yoga, and at-home stretching and core-strengthening exercises.”
In other words, inversion isn’t likely to be a silver bullet for your back woes. But as part of a multipronged strategy to treat back pain, it might just help.