by Steven Hefferon, CMT, PTA, CPRS
Let me start out by saying that I have had back pain and I have had sciatica. So I know the feeling. I know how frustrating it can be, and I know how it can suck the joy right out of your life.
Be careful not to do dumb things
Shortly after I graduated from high school, I owned a landscaping company. I worked hard because I wanted the good stuff out of life. I really pushed myself, sometimes taking on jobs I did not even know how to do. Once, for example, I was approached by an English client who wanted a stone wall built the way they do it in England, which is without cement (they’re called drywalls). I said, “No problem.” But because the wall was going to have to hold back dirt, I asked if I could put in a cement footer. The client agreed.
Well, on Day One I dug out the footer then went to the store and bought the cement. When I returned, I decided to put two 80-pound bags of cement on my shoulders to save time and trips up and down to the back yard.
I put the first bag on my shoulder, but when I bent down and twisted a little to pick up the second bag, I heard a pop. In an instant, I was flat on my back in pain. I spent the next weeks either in bed or lying on my back in front of the TV. About the middle of the second week, it hit me that in the early ’80s a newfangled device came out called “moon boots”—also known as “gravity boots.” My best friend had just gotten a pair for Christmas, so I borrowed them and had my dad install a bar in the basement that I could hang from (or invert myself). I began doing this for 5-10 minutes a day.
Soon, my back was feeling a lot better. I continued to use the boots on a regular basis, not only as part of my recovery but also as a way to experiment with different exercises and movements that might bring about a higher level of fitness.
What condition are you suffering from?
It is amazing how my life experiences have brought me to where I’m now writing about how I healed myself some 20-plus years ago. Back then, I did not know what I was doing when I stumbled upon something that just happened to work. Today, inversion therapy can no longer be called an alternative treatment because it has been the subject of a great deal of clinical study. Inversion therapy has been proven to help relieve many forms of back and neck pain including the following:
- Bulging Disc
- Herniated Disc
- Chronic Back Pain
- Lower Back Pain
- Neck Pain
- Pulled Back Muscles
- SI Joint Dysfunction
- Facet Joint Dysfunction
7 key benefits of inversion for the back pain sufferer
While relieving your back pain is your primary reason for considering inversion therapy, there are a number of additional benefits many people experience with a regular program of inversion. Here are 7 good reasons to use inversion therapy:
- Maintains your height. Regularly inverting will help you avoid the “shrinkage” that naturally occurs as a result of gravity over a lifetime.
- Improves circulation. When you’re inverted, your blood circulation is aided by gravity rather than having to work against it. In addition, with inversion, gravity helps the lymphatic system clear faster, easing the aches and pains of stiff muscles.
- Relieves stress. Everyone knows that a full-body stretch is rejuvenating! An inversion table provides the same feeling of relaxation as a yoga class—with a lot less effort. Many people find that they sleep better with regular inversion therapy.
- Heightens mental alertness. Any upside-down activity increases the supply of oxygen to the brain, which many experts believe helps maintain mental sharpness.
- Increases flexibility and range of motion. With inversion, your joints stay healthy and supple, meaning you can remain as active as you were in your younger years.
- Improves posture. The stretching that comes with reversing the force of gravity on your body helps you sit, stand, and move with more ease and grace.
- Realigns the spine after workouts. Running and other aerobic activities inevitably compress your spine—often unevenly. One-sided activities such as golf or tennis often pull the spine out of alignment. During inversion, minor misalignments often correct themselves naturally.
5 ultra-challenging activities you can do on an inversion table
If the 7 hidden benefits were not enough to make you want to consider using inversion, here are 5 exercises you can do at every session:
- Inverted Squats. In the full inverted position, you can use your glutes and hamstrings to pull yourself up; the motion would be simply trying to bend your legs at your knees. Because the inverted squat is very challenging and isolates the glutes and hamstrings, most back pain sufferers first need to strengthen their glutes and hamstrings.
- Inverted Crunch. In the full inverted position, place your hands on your chest and use your abs to lift your upper body about one-third of the way up.
- Inverted sit-up. In the full inverted position, extend your arms as if you were reaching for your feet and try to touch your feet; some experts say that one inverted sit-up is equivalent to 10 regular sit-ups.
- Increase the decompression. In the full inverted position, grab the table legs and pull down; this way you can increase and control the amount of decompression if you want or need more.
- Inverted Rotation. In the full inverted position, reach with the opposite hand to the table legs and pull yourself into rotation; you can then switch hands and do the same for the opposite side.
How to get started
Let’s take a look at what a back pain sufferer will go through in a typical session. First, you do not need to go into full inversion to get the benefits. (Note: It will take time before you will be able to tolerate full inversion.) Here is a simple guide for beginners:
First 2 Weeks: Adjust the table to go to 20-30 degrees for 1 to 2 minutes, once or twice a day. Slowly increase your time until you become comfortable with the process and the position. The best way to tell if you’re getting used to the inversion table is whether or not you can relax while you’re using it.
Partial Inversion after 2 weeks: This is considered anything up to 60 degrees, which is parallel with the rear legs of the table. See if you can work your way up to 15 minutes, once or twice a day. There are two basic ways to invert:
- Static inversion: This is when you hold yourself at the desired angle and do not move from that position.
- Intermittent Inversion: This involves using a rocking motion, alternating 20 to 30 seconds in the inverted position and 20 to 30 seconds in the upright position. Some people believe that it is the pumping action that delivers the best results. You will have to experiment to see which way is most comfortable and works best for you.
Full Inversion after 2 weeks: This is when your body is completely upside down and hanging freely. Full inversion is the position you need to be in to do the 5 “ultra” exercises listed above. The amount of time you spend is up to you, but 5 to 15 minutes twice a day is recommended. The amount of time it takes for you to tolerate full inversion will depend on your ability to accommodate to the position; everyone is different so go slow.
One last safety tip
While inversion has been proven to be beneficial, it is best to start slow—that is, at a low angle for short amounts of time. Going straight into full inversion will make you sore. So please resist the temptation to go into full inversion day one.
One last success tip
Be patient and consistent with its use, the inversion table is a device that can be used for a lifetime to support optimal health. So make a habit of using it on a consistent basis, the research supports the use and your body will reap the benefits.
1. Sheffield, F.: Adaptation of Tilt Table for Lumbar Traction. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 45: 469-472, 1964.
2. Nosse, L.: Inverted Spinal Traction. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 59: 367-370, Aug 78.
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4. Ballantyne, Byron, et al: The Effects of Inversion Traction on Spinal Column Configuration, Heart Rate, Blood Pressure, and Perceived Discomfort. Jour of Orthopedic Sports Phys Ther. 254-260, Mar 86.
5. Kane, M, et al: Effects of Gravity-facilitated Traction on Intravertebral Dimensions of the Lumbar Spine. Jour of Orthopedic and Sports Phys Ther. 281-288, Mar 85.
6. Goldman, R, et al: The Effects of Oscillating Inversion on Systemic Blood Pressure, Pulse, Intraocular Pressure, and Central Retinal Arterial Pressure. The Physician and Sports Medicine. 13: 93-96, Mar 85.
7. Dimberg, L, et al: Effects of gravity-facilitated traction of the lumbar spine in persons with chronic low back pain at the workplace.
8. Nachemson, Alf, et al: Intravital Dynamic Pressure Measurements in Lumbar Discs. 1970.
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