|Diffusing Muscle Pain: Providing Pain Relief to Patients Using Infrared Sauna Heat By Gayle Davis, PT|
The use of a full-spectrum sauna as part of a treatment plan for pain and muscle recovery has shown impressive results. Although this treatment is currently not considered reimbursable, despite a preponderance of published clinical evidence, positive patient reports and documented improvements in clinical symptoms have motivated several of my referring MDs into action to lobby insurance companies through written prescriptions and letters of medical necessity for use of the infrared sauna.
Instead of using convection heat found in conventional saunas, full-spectrum infrared saunas utilize infrared light waves to warm the body. The infrared spectrum penetrates the body's tissues for a deeper core sweat affecting tissues at the cellular level. Infrared is a safe form of heat, naturally occurring in sunlight, and used in hospital incubators for newborn babies.
Several published studies in reputable medical journals have provided evidence supporting the use of infrared sauna treatments for pain relief. In a 2006 double-blind, placebo-controlled study in the Journal of Pain Research and Management, researchers found that infrared heat therapy was able to reduce chronic low back pain by 50% over 7 weeks, with no negative side effects.
A study in the 2002 issue of the Spine Journal found that heat therapy was more effective than analgesics for low back pain relief. Participants in the group receiving heat reported relief as early as the first day of treatment with the therapeutic effects of heat therapy lasting more than 48 hours post-treatment.
Infrared saunas have also been proven to help with several forms of arthritis. In a 2008 study in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, reductions in both pain and stiffness were statistically significant after only 4 weeks of treatment for both rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (1992) reported pain reduction and increased functional ability in elderly patients with degenerative osteoarthritis of the knee who were treated with infrared saunas.
Using roentgenography, osteoarthritis decline can be found in 4% of people under age 24, and 85% of people ages 75 to 79. This double-blind study on degenerative osteoarthritis demonstrated pain reduction for the treatment group by more than 50%, with no significant pain reduction in the placebo group. Though the study lasted only 10 days, individuals in the treatment group reported no need for analgesics (due to being pain free) for 2 months to 1 year.
PROMOTING MUSCLE RECOVERY
One of the potential mechanisms by which infrared heat reduces pain is through increasing endorphin response and decreasing the stress response. In a 1994 study published in the Laser Therapy Journal, B-endorphin levels were significantly raised, and plasma ACTH levels were significantly reduced, as a result of infrared heat therapy.
Infrared heat has also been shown to promote muscle recovery. The Journal of Human Ergology (2008) reported that infrared treatment regenerated fatigued muscle cells through a process of increased blood flow and subcutaneous tissue temperature. Researchers found that during repeated hand gripping exercises, the force-tension curve of the arm muscles remained in the ideal range for participants receiving infrared heat treatment, while the nontreatment group's force-tension curve significantly declined over time, demonstrating muscular fatigue symptoms.
Other notable benefits of infrared sauna treatment include detoxification (neurologist Deitrich Klinghardt found that the sweat of people using a conventional sauna was 95% to 97% water, while the sweat or those using an infrared sauna was 80% to 85% water, the nonwater portion being cholesterol, fat-soluble toxins, toxic heavy metals, sulfuric acid, sodium, ammonia, and uric acid), weight loss (in 2001, the Canadian Journal of Diabetes reported that infrared sauna treatment significantly lowered blood pressure and induced weight loss, reducing waist circumference, especially for patients forced to be sedentary due to medical conditions), cardiovascular health (in 2002, the Journal of the American ColIege of Cardiology concluded that infrared sauna treatments improved endothelial function and significantly reduced systolic blood pressure), and wound healing (as demonstrated in several human and animal studies published in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine).
Finding great success with my own pain relief, I decided to buy an infrared sauna for my practice. I have achieved wonderful results with patients suffering from chronic myofascial pain syndrome, low back pain, and autoimmune disorders that resulted in collagen tightening and range of motion (ROM) restriction.
Full-spectrum infrared sauna sessions not only decreased pain and muscle spasms in patients, allowing for functional rehabilitation and strengthening, but the deep heating helped to restore normal ROM. The detoxifying benefits are also noticeable in patients who had reported "not feeling well" and experienced "general fatigue" following surgery. It has especially enhanced the rehabilitation process when treating wounded soldiers who also developed myofascial pain syndromes after military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who were possibly exposed to toxic agents.
Because the infrared sauna provides myriad health benefits, I have integrated the full-spectrum infrared sauna into my general rehabilitation program for any patients referred to the clinic for evaluation and treatment.
I am a huge proponent of integrating a full-spectrum infrared sauna into any physical therapy practice, and I will continue to advocate for insurance reimbursement. I would encourage you to research this modality and discover the benefits it holds for your practice (the return on investment has been positive), and most importantly, the effective therapeutic effects the infrared sauna has on the rehabilitation and recovery of your patients. PTP
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