Dr. Decipher: It’s Deadly to Be Upside-Down

November 30th, 2009 by Kim Lenz

A tragic, unbelievable accident occurred this week when John Jones, a 26- year-old medical student from UVA got stuck upside down in a cave in Utah. He was spelunking in a Nutty Putty Cave, and wedged himself in a small opening about 150 feet from the surface in an area known as “Bob’s Push” about 18 inches wide and 10 inches high.

He hung there for 28 hours while a team of rescuers tried to free him.  At one point he was partially freed using pulleys and rescuers were able to give him food and water, but a rope pulley failed and Jones became stuck again, then died while being monitored. Even after death, his body is unable to be recovered, and the cave is to be filled and made a permanent memorial.

What is so deleterious about hanging upside down? Remember those gravity boots that were the inversion craze of the 1980s and popularized by Richard Gere in the movie “American Gigolo”? Last year David Blaine, an illusionist and endurance artist, performed a stunt where he hung upside down for 3 days; however, he trained for this event and every hour actually stood upright for a medical check, stretching, and to relieve himself.

Few controlled medical studies have been performed on the effects on inversion. Our bodies are designed to maximally function in an upright position. Hanging upside down hastens blood return to the heart from the legs immediately, then causes pooling of blood in the head and the lungs as the heart is unable to sufficiently pump the blood back to the lower extremities. We have valves in our leg veins which pump blood while we walk, and these are ineffective when one is inverted.

Pulmonary edema, fluid in the lungs, develops as heart failure occurs and brain edema (swelling) and strokes can develop. Another bad effect is glaucoma (increased intra-ocular pressure). Trapeze artists, rock climbers, and bungee jumpers are at risk and should only remain inverted for short periods of time.

An interesting medical treatment known as inversion therapy has been used for centuries, mainly for musculoskeletal problems. The theory is that hanging upside down stretches out the spinal cord to relieve pressure on nerves and joints.  Currently on the market are inversion tables, featured on a popular morning TV show. They have been selling well, but the sustained effectiveness of this therapy is questionable.

This brings to mind the medieval rack torture used on enemies of the crown such as William Wallace (Braveheart). Beware of inversion devices and activities that involve hanging upside down. Obviously, kids hanging on monkey bars is ok, but prolonged periods of time in this abnormal position is very bad, and can be debilitating or deadly.

What a tragic story of Mr. Jones’ death; he left a pregnant¬† wife, and one young child. Please be careful both in recreational pursuits and when trying new therapies such as inversion and remember the fragility of life.

Disclaimer: This does not take the place of regular medical care, and is not a complete review of any medical conditions. Consult with a physician before any treatment or taking any medications. Seek medical attention immediately for any serious symptoms, or call 911. No current or local patients have been referenced, so any resemblance is purely coincidental.

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