Exercise turned on its head with inversion therapy
Undertaking a routine of hanging upside down has its advocates, but not everyone responds well to an inverted state.
By Julie Deardorff
CHICAGO — Rosie O’Donnell hangs upside down to treat depression. “DaVinci Code” author Dan Brown does it for a creative burst. And runner Marc Swerdlow of Highland Park, Ill., swears it alleviates back pain.
Should you shake up your life with inversions, a concept traditionally embraced by yogis, children, gymnasts and bats?
Like all activities that promise better health, it depends on your fitness level, pre-existing conditions and expectations.
Proponents say inversions can be beneficial because when you spend your life sitting or standing, blood pools in the lower part of the extremities. Inversions can reverse the blood flow in the body, temporarily counteracting the negative effects of gravity, improving circulation and lymph flow and bringing blood and oxygen to the brain.
These changes are said to help stimulate the immune system, alleviate arthritic and low back pain, prevent varicose and spider veins, firm up sagging organs and reduce stress.
Arthritic hip pain, for example, can be caused by small, hard compounds found in the synovial fluid of the joint, which grind into the joint when someone stands, walks or runs.
But if the joint is opened by hanging or swiveling, the compounds move out of the joint region, alleviating the problem, according to British researchers who studied the effects of hanging from the feet.
“The foremost benefit is the ability to traction the spine,” said therapeutic yoga instructor Mark Kater, owner of Harmony Yoga Reiki Center in Skokie, Ill., who has been dangling wrong-side-up for two decades.
“Turning upside down causes the spinal column to lengthen in the opposite direction to normal gravity stress,” he said.. “This means the spaces between the vertebra open. And this relieves the stress on the spinal discs, which may be pinching on the nerves and causing pain.”
But not everyone has a body that responds well to the unnatural inverted state. People with high blood pressure, extreme obesity, glaucoma, hypertension, bone weaknesses, heart or circulatory disorders or who are pregnant shouldn’t try it without a doctor’s supervision.
And though inversion therapy dates to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, evidence that it can permanently relieve back pain is limited and dated.
It’s easy to pull a muscle by overdoing it because there’s a tendency to believe that if hanging for two minutes is good, then 10 minutes is even better, said Craig Singer, a massage therapist at Alternative Health Group in Bucktown. And most of the effects are temporary at best.
“It’s like when you stop going to the gym, you lose fitness,” said Riley Teeter of Teeter Hang Ups, which makes inversion products for commercial use, gyms, spas and medical lines designed for doctor’s offices.
“If you stop using (inversion therapy), gravity comes back, compresses the soft tissue in joints and the negative effects might return,” said Teeter, whose father started the company in 1981 to help his own backaches. “It’s really a lifestyle change. You incorporate inversion in your life.”
In addition to yoga poses, inversions can be achieved using gravity boots, a yoga sling or inversion tables. Gravity boots, which are strapped around the ankles, are hooked on to a horizontal chin-up bar. The boots allow a full, 180-degree inversion, which can be good for athletes who want extra traction or want to perform challenging exercises such as inverted curls or squats. But for beginners, it can be difficult to get back up to the bar while wearing the boots.
A yoga sling, which O’Donnell demonstrated on “The View,” is easier to use than gravity boots and requires less strength, Kater said. Some snap into eye hooks that are anchored into the wall or ceiling, or they can be attached to a horizontal bar.
Then there are adjustable inversion tables or chairs, which allow people to begin upright and gently tilt back to a comfortable degree, whether it’s 30 degrees beyond horizontal or a full 180 degrees. The feet are held in place by ankle pads, and the inversion is controlled by the users’ arms.
For Chicago real estate developer Jeff Grinspoon, 43, it was the inversion table that worked for his back pain. At first, he found it stressful. But before long, he had his 78-year-old father trying it too.
“Blood flowing to the head feels weird,” said Grinspoon, who inverts once or twice a day for about five minutes. “But if you let go, it’s relaxing. I’ve actually gotten sleepy while being upside down.”
Swerdlow, 43, a marathoner and real estate attorney, suffered from a herniated disk. His physical therapist suggested an inversion table, and Swerdlow now uses it once or twice a day to help recover from long runs or lengthy plane trips. Unlike Grinspoon, he never found turning upside down to be uncomfortable.
“I’ve joked that if I can’t sleep at night, I’d use it to relax,” he said.
The shallower the angle, the longer you can stay inverted, but there is no time limit. O’Donnell said she hangs between 15 and 30 minutes a days. Grinspoon and Swerdlow, who both bought inversion tables at Relax the Back, located in Chicago and Lincolnshire, Ill., generally use it less than 10 minutes a day, depending on how they feel.
But anecdotal claims aside, does it really work? There’s little evidence for depression, and only a few studies have examined back pain.
One small study of 20 healthy men concluded that hanging upside down “significantly increased spinal length and reduced the muscle pain.” But that was published in 1978.
In 1985, a study showed 13 of 16 men with low back pain found improvement using inversion and declared it an effective means of achieving “pelvic traction” at home.
But the study, published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, found side effects included persistent headaches, blurred vision and contact lens discomfort. The study also cautioned that it should be done under medical supervision.
What studies say
Northern Illinois researchers, meanwhile, tested 19 men in 1988 and found that “gravity inversion should not be compared to or classified as an exercise” and found “no physiological adaptation occurred in any of the inverted positions as a result of the inversion training.”
Still, actor Richard Gere made gravity boots hip in the 1980s when he dangled from them in the movie “American Gigolo.” And aside from some bad publicity in 1983 when a study raised concerns that inversions could be dangerous — a conclusion that was later adjusted to say inversions were fine if participants were in good health — the market has been slowly expanding.
STL International Inc., which manufactures Teeter Hang Ups, said it has seen a 374 percent growth in sales since the late 1990s. And plenty of Internet competitors are offering inversion tables for as little as $129 as well as discounted gravity boots and chairs, something that concerns the Teeters, whose tables start at $299 and range up to $3,000 for a medical version.
The danger, said Riley Teeter, is that consumers get what they pay for.
“I fear we’re heading toward a market collapse with all the cheap copies out there,” she said. “With cheap equipment, you get catastrophic failure after just five months of use.”
That can be unnerving, given that it takes a bit of bravery to swing from your ankles on even the most trustworthy equipment. But finding the courage to try inversions is one of the benefits, Kater said.
“The idea of going upside down can be scary, especially when using the gravity boots,” Kater said. “But a person can gain confidence by doing something they aren’t used to doing. After hanging upside down, people seem to have a lighter mood and feel happier in general.”
For Chicago’s Alan Wolf, a fitness consultant who hangs upside down every day at Lakeshore Athletic Club, Kater’s yoga studio or at his outdoor back-yard gym, the daily head-rush blends body, mind and spirit. He uses it to build core strength by doing inverted crunches and squats and to clear his head.
Like O’Donnell, he uses it as a mood enhancer. “There’s just no way you can go up there, come down and still feel depressed,” he said. “It changes your world.”