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They're just heels over head about this

Fans of inversion therapy say it eases back pain and counteracts gravity's negative effects. But there's little hard data.

July 09, 2007|Julie Deardorff | Chicago Tribune

ROSIE O'DONNELL hangs upside down to treat depression. "The Da Vinci 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?

As with all activities that promise better health, it depends on your fitness level, preexisting 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. This means the spaces between the vertebrae 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.

Although 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 Chicago's Alternative Health Group. 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.

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