Inversion Tables vs. Spinal Decompression

If you have back problems and pain, your doctor may recommend treatments such as spinal decompression or inversion therapy. The goal is to help reduce pain and improve blood flow, but whether any of these treatments are right for you will depend upon your specific condition. You should always consult the advice of your health-care provider before attempting such therapies, as there are potentially serious side effects.

Man holding his lower back
Credit: Robert Kneschke/iStock/Getty Images

Identification

Your spine is made up of 23 soft disc cushions; six in the cervical neck region, 12 in the middle back thoracic region and five in the lower back lumbar region. These discs are like shock absorbers and help with range of movement. But they can deform or tear as a result of pressure changes and can even herniate, or be pushed outside their normal position. Spinal decompression techniques try to reduce the pressure and can take surgical or non-surgical forms. Inversion therapy is another treatment some people turn to and involves hanging upside down from ceiling-anchored boots or laying on an inversion table angled downward.

Surgical Decompression

The Cleveland Clinic lists five main types of spinal decompression surgeries which involve removing portions of the disc, bone fragments, vertebrae or connective tissues. As with all invasive surgical techniques, these can be expensive, costing $10,000 or more; involve a long recovery period; and come with potential side effects such as bleeding, blood clots, permanent nerve or tissue damage or an allergic reaction to anesthesia. Surgery to relieve pressure on nerve roots successfully relieves pain in 80 to 90 percent of patients, notes the Cleveland Clinic.

Non-Surgical Decompression

If your back problem isn't as severe, your health-care provider may opt for a non-surgical decompression technique, which has fewer health risks. This usually involves a form of traction, where the segments of your spine are systematically and continuously pulled gently apart by a computerized traction system. A Santa Corona Hospital in Italy published a study reviewing non-surgical decompression traction in "Acta Neurochirurgica Supplement" in 2005 and found that 78 percent of the 41 patients who completed therapy reported improvement and a better quality of life. According to Disabled World, the cost of this type of spinal decompression ranges from $100 to $200 per visit and usually takes about 20 visits, for a total of $2,000 to $4,000.

Inversion

With inversion therapy, you'll be placed into an upside-down posture to reverse the effects of gravity on your spine, with your head tilted downward on a table. Proponents of inversion tables believe they relieve pressure on the discs and nerve roots in your spine and increase the spaces between vertebrae. Dr. Celeste Robb-Nicholson, editor in chief of "Harvard Women's Health Watch," writes on the Partners Premiere website that inversion therapy can raise blood pressure, lower your heart rate and increase pressure in your eye. In some users, it's caused bleeding into the retina, headache and blurred vision. You shouldn't use an inversion table if you're pregnant or have high blood pressure, heart disease or any eye diseases. Inversion therapy is the least-expensive back treatment, ranging from $300 to $500 if you purchase your own table.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
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