5 Reasons to Choose Physical Therapy over Inversion Tables for Back Pain

Some people use inversion tables to treat low back pain, but there may be some risks to inversion therapy, and there are reasons why physical therapy for back pain is a smarter choice. 

If you have low back pain or sciatica, you may encounter many different treatments to help your problem.  Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, or a surgeon may recommend you have surgery to treat your condition.  Others may recommend chiropractic care or other holistic therapies to help you manage your pain.

Your physical therapist can teach you a proper exercise progression for your back pain, and he or she can teach you what to stop doing to help your back improve.  Postural correction has been proven to help relieve pressure off spinal nerves, and it may be one of the components that helps you return to your normal activities when managing your back pain.

What Does Inversion Therapy Do?

Many people use inversion therapy to help manage their back pain.  Inversion tables are thought to unload your spine to take pressure off your spinal discs and nerves.  This traction force is thought to decrease your pain so you can return to your normal activities.

Studies indicate that inversion therapy may come with serious contraindications that not be the best option for your back pain.  Inversion may cause an increase in your blood pressure, and those with glaucoma may experience an increase intra-occular pressure while using inversion.

One small study in 2012 did find that inversion helped some people facing surgery avoid the knife, but the study wasn't particularly well designed, and all patients in the study improved, regardless of the use of inversion tables or physical therapy.

Here is a list of 5 reasons why physical therapy is superior to inversion tables for the treatment of back pain.  If you have low back pain, check in with your doctor, and then visit your physical therapist to learn the correct things to do to manage your condition.

You Can Do Your PT Exercises Anywhere

Photo of a woman doing a plank with a toddler on her back.
You can use just about anything at home to do your PT exercises.. Getty Images

If you are using an inversion table to manage your back pain, you most likely can only perform your "therapy" at home.  But what if back pain strikes at work or while you are on vacation?

Physical therapy for low back pain involves learning postural correction techniques and exercises to treat your condition.  You can apply the exercises just about anywhere, so when back pain strikes suddenly, you can take action right away instead of having to wait to get home to hang upside down on an inversion table.

There Are No Dangerous Side Effects to PT Exercises

Inversion tables may have dangerous side effects that may prevent you from using it to treat low back pain.  These side effects may include:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased pressure in the eyes
  • Heart rate changes

Contraindications to inversion, as stated by the inversion company Teeter, include, but are not limited to:

  • Pregnancy
  • Middle ear infection
  • Actively swollen joints
  • Obesity
  • Vertigo and dizziness
  • Recent trauma
  • Stroke
  • Weakness or frailty

Physical therapy exercises and postural correction can be quite safe and effective for many of these conditions.  If you are pregnant and develop back pain, PT can help.  Obese people can (and should) exercise to treat their low back pain. If you have vertigo from BPPV, you can still perform your back exercises. (Physical therapy can also be effective to treat vertigo.)

You are Taking Control of Your Back Pain

Photo of a man with a spine model.
Physical therapy for back pain can help you move better and feel better.. UpperCut Images/Getty Images

When dealing with back pain or sciatica, it is important to take an active role in your care.  Physical therapy exercises and postural correction techniques put you in control of your condtion.  When pain strikes, you can spring into action to help decrease or eliminate your pain.

Inversion therapy is a passive treatment.  You strap yourself into a table, flip upside down, and lie there.  Taking an active role in your care with PT exercises puts you in control of your condition.

Exercise and Postural Correction are Proven to Be Effective for Back Pain

Bad sitting posture (illustration)
Sitting with good posture can help your back pain.. Wetcake Studio/iStock Vectors/Getty Images

When looking for techniques to help back pain, studies indicate that exercise and postural correction are proven ways to help eliminate your pain.

Inversion therapy may help some people feel better, but studies do not support the use of lumbar traction devices in the effective long term management of back pain.

If you are looking for proven ways to manage your back pain or sciatica, working with your physical therapist is a low risk, low cost, value packed option for treatment.

Exercise Can Prevent Other Musculoskeletal Injuries and Problems

 Exercise for back pain typically involves performing specific movements to improve your spinal range of motion (ROM) and your core strength.  These exercises can have a beneficial effect on other parts of your body as well.

Performing straight leg raises to improve core strength can help keep your legs strong, and press ups to improve your back ROM can help keep your arms strong as well.

Walking is often recommended for people with back pain; it is an upright exercise that can improve blood flow to your spinal discs and joints.  Walking also helps to improve your overall cardiac and respiratory function, and it can improve your mood and lower your stress levels.

If you have back pain or sciatica, everyone seems to be willing to offer some sort of advice to try to help you.  Your best course of treatment is to check in with your doctor and then engage in an active care plan to help manage your symptoms.

Physical therapy is proven to be effective in managing back pain and sciatica, and taking an active role in your care may be superior to simply using a passive device like an inversion table to treat your symptoms.

Sources:  Albright, J. et al. Philadelphia panel evidence-based clinical practice guidelines on selected rehabilitation interventions for low back pain. Physical Therapy. 2001. Oct; 81(10): 1641-1674.

Prasad, KS, etal. Inversion therapy in patients with pure single level lumbar discogenic disease: a pilot randomized trial. Disabil Rehabil. 34(17) 2012.  1473-80.

Tekeoglu, I. et al. Distraction of lumbar vertebrae in gravitational traction. Spine. 1998. May; 23(9): 1061-3.

van der Heijen, G. et al. The efficacy of traction for back and neck pain: A systematic, blinded review of randomized clinical trial methods. Physical Therapy. 1995. Feb; 75(2): 93-104.

Continue Reading