Inversion Tables and Back Pain
Many people who suffer from back pain have used inversion tables and chairs for relief. There is some really interesting work by Dr. Alf Nachemson that found that when you sit, the pressure on your vertebrae can increase by 250% compared to when you stand. Even laying down only relieves 75% of the pressure. The only thing that takes all of the pressure off of your spine is inverting at a 60-degree angle.
You may have heard about stars who regularly use inversion tables. Bradley Cooper said that it helped him deal with a physically demanding schedule of performing on stage in The Elephant Man. Eva Mendes says that 20 minutes a day does wonders for her skin. Others, such as David Duchovny, Rosie O'Donnell, Matt Lauer, Regis Philbin, Martha Stewart, and Ozzy Osbourne invert for different reasons. There is still a lot of research to be done, but people that invert also report other benefits, including better brain function, help with insomnia, reduced stress, increased circulation, maintaining height, better digestion, help with mood swings, and increased immunity.
We chose the best inversion tables and chairs by taking into consideration several factors. We arrived at these criteria after spending a lot of time working with various inversion tables across different price points, manufacturers, and designs.
- Ankle support comfort
- Backrest comfort
- Quality of construction and materials
- Weight capacity
- Inverting mechanism
- Ease of storage
- Extra relevant features
- Value for money
There are a few other factors that we take into consideration, but which we weigh less heavily. For example, some units are designed so users can do ab workouts while inverted. We will mention when an inversion table can be used for that, but our main focus is relieving back pain and, therefore, the quality of inversion.
The Best Inversion Tables
Best Value Inversion Table
- Unique iControl disk brake system makes it easy to adjust through a large range of angles- no safety strap needed, unlike most other brands.
- 2.3″ of memory foam backrest
- AIRSOFT ankle holders for a comfortable fit- no pinching or pain in ankles
- SURELOCK palm activated ratchet system for locking ankles into place
- 350 lb. user weight capacity
- Removable lumbar pillow included
- Accommodates users from 4'10"-6'6" tall
- Water bottle/accessory holder included
- Can be used for ab exercises-locks into place so it will stay in place
- Folds for storage
Best Value Runner Up
- 2″ memory foam backrest
- Extra-long handles for you to pull yourself up
- Water-resistant, double-stitched vinyl cover
- Palm activated ratcheting system to hold at ankles
- Ankle support is angled for more comfort
- Includes foldable PVC equipment mat to protect the floor
- Inverts up to 180 degrees
- For users up to 350 lbs.
- Removable lumbar pillow included
- Accommodates users up to 6’6″ tall
- Folds for storage
- Steel frame with powder-coated finish
- Strap controls the maximum angle of inversion
- Copy of Strap controls the maximum angle of inversion
- Safety vinyl-side covers prevent fingers from being pinched
- Significantly cheaper than our other top choices
- Accommodates users from 4’10” to 6’6″ and up to 300 lbs.
- Adjustable headrest
- Highly rated by many users online
- Six position adjustable pin system for adjusting the inversion angle
- Lifting your arms will cause you to invert and return to the starting position
- The headrest pad is adjustable
- It can be used for ab exercise, though the table doesn’t lock into place
- It doesn’t fold for storage
Best High-End Inversion Table
- Extra-long Stretch Max handles make it easier to stretch and add traction pressure
- Acupressure nodes can help reduce tension in the back
- Lifting your arms will cause you to invert and return to the starting position
- 5-year warranty
- Accommodates users up to 300 lbs
- EZ-Angle tether is marked at 20, 40, and 60 degrees
- Folds easily for storage
- It can be used for ab workouts
Best High-End Runner up
- Accommodates users up to 330 lbs. and up to 6’9″ tall (the highest of any of our top choices)
- The backrest slides giving you additional traction
- Includes adjustable neck support
- Angles adjust by pushing the button on the hand controls
- It could be used for working your abs, though the maximum angle is 60 degrees (which is the best angle for inverting)
- High-quality construction
- No handles for stretching
- It doesn’t fold for storage
Notes on our top Choices
You may notice that we listed a couple of drawbacks on our best high-end table, the Mastercare from Relax the Back. It was chosen as the winner because, as an inversion table, it's head and shoulders above the competition thanks to the backrest is on rollers. The amount of traction you get with this table is more than any other table.
We hope to see other inversion table manufacturers incorporate this into their design. Our dream inversion table would include these other features:
- Comfortable ankle support that the Exerpeutic 975Sl has with its AIRSOFT system
- Large handlebars for stretching and changing position.
- Removable lumbar such as the one found on the IRONMAN Gravity 4000 and neck pillow found on the Mastercare.
- Optional acupressure nodes found on the Teeter EP-950 LTD.
Finding the best inversion table is a process of figuring out what are the most important features that will fit within your budget. If your main focus is on inversion, you don't plan on exercising on it, and budget isn't an issue, the Mastercare is your best bet. If you want to exercise and invert, the Exerpeutic 975SL is a great choice. If you have bad ankles, knees, or hips, the Stamina Inline is your best choice. If you're on a tighter budget, the Innova ITX9600 is an excellent choice.
Key Considerations for Inversion Tables
Though there have been some studies on the benefits of inversion, there's still a lot of research to be done. If you read reviews on Amazon, youtube, and other sites, you will find thousands of stories of people using inversion tables and chairs to deal with sciatica, lower and middle back pain, as well as other health issues. Please note the following before you purchase an inversion table or chair:
- Talk to a physician first before you start inverting. It can be risky for those with back or heart issues; those who are pregnant, those with hiatal and ventral hernias, spine issues such as degenerative discs; arthritis, inner ear issues, glaucoma, hypertension, those taking anticoagulants, history of stroke, carotid artery disease; or any issues that can be exacerbated by higher blood pressure (such as glaucoma and even pink eye).
- Don't use boots that you attach to a bar. It takes a lot of ab strength to get out of position (people do get stuck), and it's not necessary or recommended to go inverted 180 degrees immediately.
- Beware of cheap tables. Cheap tables are usually less comfortable on the ankles, harder to control, and harder to get out of.
- For those with ankle, knee, or hip issues, look at inversion chairs vs. tables. Inversion tables will elongate the ankle, knee, and hip joints, and if you have arthritis or joint pain in any of these areas, we recommend an inversion chair that will provide traction just to the spine and not the other joints. These are also easier to get out of and to control, so they're recommended for older and less athletic users.
How to use an Inversion Table
- Start with a test inversion. If you've been cleared by your doctor to invert, it's still smart to invert for a short period of time at a smaller angle to make sure that it won't be causing you pain in your back, knees, head, or heart. Personally, inverting at too great an angle used to cause shooting pains in my lower back.
- The first time you invert, it's a good idea to have someone in the room with you to make sure you're able to return to the upright position. We've heard several stories about people getting stuck upside down! This is especially possible with gravity boots (they have hooks on the back of them, and you attach them to a bar), also with lower quality inversion tables.
- Experts often recommend that when you invert, you don't necessarily need to go 180 degrees. According to the work of Dr. Alf Nachemson, 60 degrees is as far as you have to invert to get a 100% reduction of pressure compared to when you're standing.
- While inverting, if your table has bars on it, you can use those to brace yourself and stretch, twisting yourself from one side to the other. You can also press your lower back into the back of the table repeatedly. Some people will alternately bend their knees to help open their hips. I personally will use my hands to pull my head to one side and then the other, stretching my neck.
- You can gradually increase the time that you stay inverted, but doing it more often is more effective than longer periods of inversion. In the beginning, maybe you'll invert for 30 seconds, and you can gradually increase up to 5 minutes or more. But according to a study by LJ Nosse, inverting causes your muscles to relax by 35% within the first 10 seconds.
- One chiropractor we spoke to recommends to invert for a period, then go back to upright, then do another round of inversion. He said that it would help train your brain and body to retain the benefits longer.
If you're experiencing muscle guarding, which is when a muscle will tighten up as a type of defense mechanism to protect an area that has been injured, then inversion isn't going to be effective in that area-it will prevent traction or decompression because the muscle is holding everything together. One option is to use a heating pad before you invert to help the muscle release.
For Those Unsure About Inversion
There are a few ways to get traction on your spine to see if it could help you. One option is to do inversion postures from yoga. Some of these are simple, as demonstrated below, and others require strength, coordination, and the supervision of a yoga instructor.
A newer option to invert is to use a yoga sling. A yoga sling is a strip of fabric that is suspended by attaching it to the ceiling, where you wrap your hips up with the fabric and hang upside down.
Also known as a yoga hammock or yoga trapeze sling. If you're in great shape and you like challenges, this could be fun. But they're not easy to set up, and require skill to be able to hold yourself up without falling. We don't recommend these for most buyers looking to relieve back pain or for general wellness.
Another option is to use gravity boots and hang from a bar. We don't recommend this method because while it will be cheaper than most inversion tables, they are very difficult to use. Getting in and out of inversion is difficult, and if you can't get out, you'll be stuck upside down. They also get you at 180 degrees, which isn't necessary for inversion. The recommended angle is 60 degrees.
The best is to test out an inversion table in a store. Our top choice, the Mastercare, is sold by Relax the Back, which has many locations in the US. Just keep in mind that it's almost $900, and if you like it, it's one of the more expensive inversion tables. It's unique because the backrest pad is on rollers, and as you invert, there's no friction of your back pressing against the pad, so you'll get traction on your back more easily.
You can hang from a pull-up bar, which will give you traction on your spine, but it will feel a lot different than laying on an inversion table or chair, and it's going to take a bit of strength.
There are also yoga poses that will give you some decompression on your spine, such as the child's pose (balasana), cat pose (marjaryasana), or forward bend (uttanasana).
Here's a video of how to do a forward bend:
Benefits of Inversion Tables
Most people use inversion tables and chairs for lower back pain. You may have heard that you are shorter by the end of the day- this is due to gravity. Sitting for long periods in poor posture, running, and moving around can misalign your spine and reduce the space between vertebrae. Inversion is supposed to increase the space between vertebrae, allowing increased circulation of blood and spinal fluid, reduce pressure on nerves as well as reducing inflammation. It also relaxes tense muscles.
There's an interesting study by Dr. Alf Nachemson, a pioneer in spine care from Sweden and co-editor of SPINE, where volunteers had a pressure sensor implanted in the third lumbar disc. He found that sitting in poor posture can increase the compression of your spine by 250%! When lying down, the pressure was reduced by 75%. The only way to reduce pressure on your vertebrae to 0% is inverting to a 60-degree angle.
Another study was funded by Volvo Aero Corporation of Sweden. In 1987 there were 14 million paid sick-days for lower back pain in Sweden, which was costing the Swedish company $570,000 per year. The researchers did a 12-month study with employees that had lower back pain with the Mastercare inversion table (one of our top picks). They found that regular gravity inversion helped relieve lower back pain. They then announced to their employees that if they don't use an inversion table at work every day, they'd have to pay for most of their health benefits. The first year after this was implemented, hours of missed work dropped by 55%!
The Sheffield study, from 1964, involved 175 patients with severe back pain that prevented them from working. After eight inversion treatments, 155 of the patients were able to return to work.
The US Army Physical Fitness School has determined, after six years of research, that soldiers who inverted regularly suffered fewer joint-related injuries and back muscle pain and healed more quickly from joint compression damage.
Although there is some positive research on inversion for back pain, there hasn't been extensive research on whether inverting is beneficial or not. If you read Amazon reviews, you will see a lot of inversion tables with hundreds and even thousands of positive reviews. Many of the reviews will claim that inversion has worked wonders for themselves or a family member or friend. The main benefits are usually for people with sciatica, lower back pain, and poor circulation.
Researchers from Newcastle University in the UK have concluded that inversion therapy is an effective conservative treatment for sciatica to avoid surgery. The patients in the study from 2003 to 2006 were all candidates for surgery due to sciatica back pain due to a herniated disc. The patients were divided into two groups, one group did regular physiotherapy, and the second group did physiotherapy and used inversion tables (they used a Teeter, which is one of the leading inversion table manufacturers and one of our top choices). Those who did physiotherapy plus inversion were 70.5% less likely to require surgery. Of the group that received physiotherapy only, 78% still needed to have back surgery. Only 23% of those who received inversion therapy still needed surgery. Professor David Mendelow, head of NeuroScience at Newcastle University, told the London Telegraph that he estimates that inversion therapy could save about $160 million per year in unnecessary surgeries just in the UK.
Better brain function
Inverting is also supposed to help with circulation to the brain, increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrition, which is supposed to increase concentration and memory. Dr. Robert Martin, author of "The Gravity Guiding System: Turning the Aging Process Upside Down," the brain operates 14% more accurately when you're inverted.
Dr. Karen Koffler, director of Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University, says that inversion therapy increases brain health by increasing blood flow. She states, "If there is increased blood flow to the area, there will be increased bioavailability of oxygen and glucose, the two most important metabolic substrates for the brain."
Author of the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, inverts every day to fight writer's block and increase his mental clarity.
Though there may be less interest in funding research for inversion because it may offer a lot of people an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs, I would love to see some research on inverting and ADHD.
The decreased muscle tension from inverting is supposed to help those who have trouble sleeping. Famous biohacker and the author of "The 4-Hour Workweek," Tim Ferriss, has recommended six things for faster and better sleep, and one of those things being inversion.
Rosie O'Donnell announced on "The View" that she suffered from clinical depression and inverted for 15-30 minutes per day to heal her depression.
A study on inversion, published by Physiotherapist LJ Nosse in 1978 and published in the Archives Of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, concluded that inverting reduces muscle tension by 35% within the first 10 seconds.
As people age, they tend to lose height because the cartilage between their joints is reduced, osteoporosis sets in, lean muscle mass decreases, and they can have poor posture. Inverting may help with a few of these causes.
Your lymphatic system is basically the drainage system of your body comprised of lymph nodes, vessels, ducts, as well as the spleen, thymus, adenoids, and tonsils. The proper functioning of the lymphatic system is critical to our body's ability to detoxify, drain fluids, regenerate tissues, and maintain a healthy immune system. When your lymphatic system isn't draining properly, you'll get a buildup of waste and toxins, which leads to a weaker immune system and a wide range of health issues. Symptoms of poor lymphatic drainage include:
- stiffness, especially when you wake up
- swollen glands
- chronic sore throat, colds, and ear issues
- lack of mental clarity
- water retention
- itchy and dry skin
- cold hands and feet
Since there is no pump to drain your lymphatic system, lymphatic drainage is done by exercise, lymphatic massage, deep breathing, laughing, drinking lots of water, inverting and twisting poses in yoga, and inversion. The idea is to pump lymph back to the heart, where it will join the blood supply in the vascular system. Dr. David Coulter, a professor at Minnesota and Columbia University, wrote a book explaining in detail how yoga drains the lymphatic system called “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners.”
Inverting has also been reported to help with poor digestion, mood swings, slowing the aging process, improving circulation, reduced varicose veins, improved waste removal through better lymphatic drainage, reduced PMS, and increasing immunity.
If you want to see a 70-year-old walk on his hands the length of a football field, check out the video below of Dr. Robert Lockhart! He's a fruitarian and a big advocate of inverting.
My Experience With Inversion
I personally have experimented with inverting for years. I started with a really cheap inversion table that a friend of mine let me borrow. It was hard to get back up to the upright position, and I didn't have any back pain at that point, so I didn't stay with it.
A few years later, I bought gravity boots because they were cheaper, and it looked like it would be a great ab workout. Though I had been doing martial arts for many years and was very athletic, it was really difficult getting the boots on the bar while the boots are on with the bar overhead (feel free to stop reading and visualize that for a second). Even more difficult is unhooking the boots off of the bar after your done with your inverting or ab workout (now imagine trying to pull yourself up and unhook the boots with tired abs). I think the boots are a disaster and I'm not surprised every time I read about or hear about someone getting stuck upside down until someone walks into a room to help them out.
I graduated to a more basic inversion table that worked fine, and for a few years, I've experimented with inverting and not-inverting to see the difference with my back pain. I can now absolutely tell the difference-inverting reduces my back pain and seems to keep me in better posture. I understand that it isn't usually associated with reducing neck pain, but one of my standard procedures while inverted is to stretch my neck. The stretching feels easier while upside down, and I can tell the difference in my neck and upper back also.
Several years ago, my chiropractor did x-rays and said that my S1 and L5 vertebrae are starting to fuse. He recommended that I do things to decompress my spine so I could possibly slow down the fusion. He recommended that I do a posture that he called "angry piano," where I lay on the floor on my stomach, reach my arms out as far as I could and hook my fingers to the floor as if I was playing the piano. I told him that I own an inversion table, and he said that would be even better.
Since starting this website, I've tried out a lot of different inversion tables. When I tried out the Mastercare from Relax the Back, I immediately felt the increase in decompression, and I knew that this inversion table was better than every table I had used before. I bought that one and gave my other inversion table to a friend that suffers from lower back pain, and he said he had noticed a reduction in his pain.
The Mastercare is different because the backrest is on rollers, so there's no friction that keeps you stuck to the backrest, preventing better traction on your spine. At that point, I wished I would have tried it years before. It is more expensive, but when it comes to health, I'm happy to spend more money on a product that's going to help me. If I were to eventually end up with constant back pain, I wouldn't look back and be happy that I saved a few hundred dollars 20 years ago. The lack of movement and pain isn't worth saving a little money!
I do have bad knees as well, and occasionally when I invert, I get a little bit of pain in one of my knees. I'm still trying to figure out how to improve my knees, and I haven't made near the progress I have with my back. If this pain increases, I will buy an inversion chair.
Inversion Table Frequently Asked Questions
Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about inversion tables for back pain.
How long should I invert for?
Beginners should use an inversion table for short periods a few times per day to allow your body to get used to it. Over time, you can gradually increase the amount of time inverting. Pay attention to how you feel. You can start with as low as under a minute at a low angle. You can gradually increase the angle of inversion until you get to 60 degrees (the Nachemson study showed that you don't need to invert any further than that).
It's also a good idea to invert slowly. Take your time to make sure you're comfortable. You shouldn't feel too much pressure in your head or anywhere else. Many users find that over time they don't feel excessive pressure in their head. This is one reason I don't like gravity boots-you are going to go 180 degrees unless you have really strong abs. When I used to invert 180 degrees, I found that I was comfortable with it some days, and other days the pressure on my head was too much.
Do inversion tables really work?
Several studies have suggested that inverting reduces back pain, decreases sciatica pain, speeds healing from joint compression damage, as well as increases circulation to the brain.
What are the benefits of using an inversion table?
Inversion tables can take all of the pressure off of your vertebrae in your spine, increasing circulation to the areas between vertebrae, and can help reduce tension in the muscles of the back.
Can inversion tables hurt your back?
The best way to invert is to slowly get into position and not invert to 180 degrees; 60 degrees is as far as you have to invert to get a 100% reduction of pressure on your spine.
What is the best inversion table for back pain?
A high-quality inversion table allows you to control the degree of inversion, is stable in all positions, has comfortable ankle support, and makes it easy to return upright.
How many times per day should I invert?
Experts recommend twice per day. The Nosse study that we referenced earlier showed that when people invert that their muscle tension levels drop by 35% in the first 10 seconds. Based on this evidence, you could invert many times per day to keep your muscle tension low.
I have experimented with it once, twice, and three or more times per day, and I've found that at least twice per day is better for me. If I'm feeling tense from standing at my desk a lot, inverting relaxes me. There are days that I'll invert every few hours for a few minutes. I also like to invert after lifting weights.
What is the best angle for inverting?
According to Dr. Alf Nachemson, 60 degrees is the angle that will achieve 100% decompression compared to the pressure on your spine you have standing. One chiropractor that we interviewed told me that he didn't want his patients inverting that much as it's not necessary and may be too intense for some of his patients.
Should I invert if I'm pregnant?
No. If you really want to continue inverting, speak to your doctor, and find out if a slight inversion for short amounts of time would be ok.
Should I be doing anything while inverted?
There are several things you can do while inverted, though not required to get the benefits of inversion:
- Deep breathing can help you to oxygenate your system and relax even more.
- If you don't have any handlebars to grip onto, you can gently stretch your neck.
- You can do crunches, as well as inverted squats. When doing inverted squats, start with a smaller inversion angle and make sure that you're warmed up and that you're using your glutes and hamstrings to do the work. In a normal squat, your quadriceps are doing most of the work, so this will feel a lot different!
- If you have handlebars, you can twist in different planes.
What if I get dizzy or headaches?
The safe thing to do is to stop inverting and talk to your doctor. If it's nothing serious, try inverting to a lesser degree, for less time, and go slower. One of the studies that we referenced in this article had participants invert to only a 15-degree angle, and they still benefitted.