My last few posts have discussed all sorts of options touted to help chronic pain. Some are outright scams, like copper and magnet infused products, others may offer slight relief, like back supports, and mattresses. Both of my parents suffered from back pain. My father chose a regular stretching program every morning along with a board under the mattress. My mother, a corset-like back brace under her clothes and a magnet mattress topper. Both swore their way was better.
Now let’s talk about another fad- inversion and traction therapy. Decades ago, traction was used routinely. The theory being it would take pressure off any impacted nerve, increase the space between those large vertebral bones that make up your spine, so “impingements” are lessened and enhance circulation. But they have gone the way all anecdotal treatments go when research is applied.
Gravity boots were quite the rage in the 1980’s. Not having started my downward spiral of chronic pain and surgeries I only tried them a few times as a way to enhance my workouts. Now the idea of hanging upside down by my ankles, with zero support, makes me cringe.
How they are supposed to work
Gravity causes all sorts of issues over time, especially compressing muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons and bones in the back, leading to degenerative changes. Putting your feet above your head is thought to reverse this effect. Just like physical therapy, massage, medications, and creams, it could offer pain relief.
There are an assortment of tables and chairs available that allow a secure way to hang upside down. Gravity boots attach the feet to a bar in order to hang upside down. But as I stated, they offer no support and can create an unsafe situation if getting the boots unhooked becomes an issue. Certain yoga positions also claim to decompress the spine. Unfortunately these may be difficult, if not impossible, for those of us already suffering with chronic pain to accomplish. In some cases, it can be harmful. Simple head stands exert the same effect without the cost. Nothing should be used without clearing it first with your healthcare provider.
By reversing the impact of gravity they are said to improve flexibility and decompress the spine. It is a noninvasive means to ease pressure on the back and weight-bearing joints.
Sounds great, right? In reality it’s hard to believe such all-encompassing benefits can be gained from a device you’re only supposed to use up to 5 minutes at one time, a few times a day.
The upside down position exerts unusual pressure on the eyes (especially concerning for those with glaucoma), increases blood pressure and decreases heart rate. Plus this abnormal posturing exerts tremendous pressure on the entire body. Not just internal organs but muscles, ligaments, tendons and other joints. Always clear with your healthcare provider.
Start small. Begin with a minute or two to see how it feels before progressing.
Does it work?
Multiple studies have shown it may offer short term benefits when added to a more comprehensive interventional program. The 2017 guidelines from the American College of Physicians states:
“While inversion and other traction therapies do not appear harmful in otherwise healthy people, there is little good-quality evidence for their effectiveness over other techniques.”
It’s so disconcerting to see ads that ask suffers to spend huge sums of money to get treatments using devices they claim will help 9 out of 10 patients. Just the hint of relief is enough to get a significant response, regardless of the cost or true benefits. “FairWarning” a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues recently publish their findings from an extensive investigation into the DRX9000. They found the manufacturer’s claims it can relieve back pain by stretching the vertebrae and allowing herniations to recede and relieve pressure on the nerve roots has never been proven.
Despite regulatory actions in the 2000’s against the DRX9000 and chiropractors for making unproven claims, they are still advertised on the internet as a cure- all for pain. Because studies promoted by the manufacturer did not follow rigorous and scientific protocols, Medicare and many other insurance companies refuse to cover them. So it’s up to patients to pay the $3,500 cost for treatments some say actually injured them.
Ardent followers believe inversion and traction devices can relieve the pressure exerted on a nerve root to stop pain. In reality this can only happen through spinal decompression- a surgical procedure. Traction, on the other hand is merely when a force is applied, either with weights or changing the body’s normal position in space. There have never been any credible studies showing they work.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Why would a few minutes upside down have any effect on the spine, a breathtaking, well-protected and brilliantly constructed anatomical structure that allows us to stand upright. The data just doesn’t support the idea that by hanging upside down everything will miraculously pop back into place and stay that way once upright again.
There are no quick fixes. There is no magic wand. I wish those of us suffering from chronic pain could be cured by wearing copper bracelets or garments, sleeping on expensive mattresses, inserting magnets in our shoes and back braces under our outfits. I truly wish it was that easy.