For Back Pain, Surfing King Loves Inversion Therapy. Should You?

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When it comes to picking someone who exudes terrific health, physical stamina and excellence in aging, personally my choice is Laird Hamilton. Despite being 52, by any health measure the surfing legend is extraordinary for his age, and it's my guess that his standout physique is generally seen as awe-inspiring (to men) and jaw-dropping (to women).

Hamilton surfing, via Shutterstock

 

So given his sculpted look, how does he do it? And more importantly, how does Hamilton stave off the physical ravages of aging that inevitably plague all of us -- specifically, back pain? In a profile piece published by the Los Angeles Times in May, the surfer, paddle board guru and innovator revealed what the paper called his "10-point plan to live forever." Point 6 focused on maintaining a strong back, while citing "inversion" as a key technique to remaining fit in this key area. But how much does the medical community know about raising one's feet above the head, and whether it's effective and safe? As anyone who has ever experienced back trouble -- even for the shortest of time -- can attest, it can be excruciatingly painful and extremely debilitating. And often as a result, if someone finds some way that can relieve that awful pain, they stick with it. That apparently was Hamilton's experience. Here's his take on the problem, and his solution:

Laird Hamilton, via Shutterstock

 

"When your back goes out, you’re out of commission. I give it relief with stretching and inversion, and strengthen it with core work and stand-up paddle boarding," said the San Francisco native who lives in Malibu, CA and Kauai, Hawaii. "Gravity is always pulling us down, and inversion fights it. I do it on a teeter board [a vertically pivoting table] or on an upside-down hammock, not gravity boots, which don’t allow your legs to relax and decompress." Alright, that works for him, but what does science say about it? On its website, the Mayo Clinic makes its skepticism known. It states that "inversion therapy doesn't provide lasting relief from back pain, and it's not safe for everyone. ... Well-designed studies evaluating spinal traction have found the technique ineffective for long-term relief. However, some people find traction temporarily helpful as part of a more comprehensive treatment program for lower back pain caused by spinal disk compression." However, that last sentence aside, inversion therapy can constitute a health threat for some, in that, "Your heartbeat slows and your blood pressure increases when you remain inverted for more than a couple of minutes — and the pressure within your eyeballs jumps dramatically. For these reasons, you should not try inversion therapy if you have high blood pressure, heart disease or glaucoma." What's more, it appears that few studies have been done on this subject. And according to the Wall Street Journal, the ones that have been conducted are not definitive in their results. In June 2014, it wrote, "Recent studies have shown spending time upside down can help with relaxation and help patients avoid back surgery. However, the studies are too small to be conclusive, scientists say, adding that inverting may be risky in people who have glaucoma or uncontrolled hypertension since it raises blood and eye pressure." The Journal cited a 2012 study conducted by British researchers that found that "found 77% of the patients who did inversions on a Teeter table ended up not having surgery, compared with 22% of patients who received physical therapy alone." But the study involved just 22 subjects, casting doubt on the results. Supporting the idea of the paucity of study in this area, a search of the American Medical Association website surprisingly returned no significant information. Searching using the phrase "inversion therapy for back pain" produced zero results, while the key words "inversion therapy" alone generated just three, all of which made just passing references to the topic. Bottom line: It's incredibly tempting to take health advice from someone who looks like the quintessential picture of good health. Laird Hamilton looks like 50 million bucks in swim trunks, and it's hard to argue with that. But just as it's plausible to reason that Hamilton has a healthy respect for the power of the ocean, let's remember to maintain a healthy respect for medical research, and the health information that flows from it.