Can Infrared Therapy Help with Your Chronic Pain?

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Infrared therapy is relatively new, used to treat a variety of conditions from wound healing to nerve pain. Most recently, infrared light has shown promise for helping people manage their chronic pain safely and effectively, but what is it and how does it work?

What Is Infrared Light Therapy?

Almost 5,000 years ago, humans began experimenting with electricity to promote the body’s natural healing abilities. We’ve come a long way from the days of sticking electric eels on people, yet our understanding of the connection between pain and electricity is still limited. That hasn’t stopped us from experimenting with an ever-growing list of treatment options!

The newest addition to the field of electricity-fueled healing is infrared therapy.

Infrared light includes light at wavelengths between 800 and 1,000 nanometers. This light is just outside the visual spectrum. While humans cannot see it, they can feel the heat the rays produce.

Infrared light is on the opposite end of the light spectrum from ultraviolet. Unlike UV light, infrared stimulates cells in a positive and non-damaging way.

While scientists work to uncover infrared’s healing effects on the human body, the list of ailments IR therapy has been proven to treat continues to grow. Some of the most common diseases and issues treated with infrared include:

  • Diabetes neuropathy
  • Temporomandibular joint pain (TMJ)
  • Wounds
  • Sciatica
  • Muscle strain
  • Blunt trauma
  • Bursitis
  • Arthritis
  • Chronic pain

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How Does Infrared Therapy Reduce Pain?

While the exact method of pain reduction via infrared light is still a mystery, there are many theories on the subject.

One popular idea is that the heat generated by infrared stimulates the mitochondria of cells. This specialized cell organelle is responsible for the energy production that drives cellular function. IR heat is thought to increase the energy output of the mitochondria which helps speed up healing, reduces toxicity and helps restore balance in the cell and the body as a whole.

Infrared light has also been shown to increase circulation. When circulation is optimized, cells receive more oxygen and nutrients. This drives energy output and helps cells heal and regenerate more quickly.

This kind of therapy has also been proven to increase serotonin levels in the body. Serotonin is an important mediator of pain inhibition and acts as a natural analgesic.

Infrared light has also been shown to reduce inflammation. It does this in part by stimulating the production of nitric oxide. This molecule is important for the proper functioning of the vascular system. It helps relax arteries, reduces oxidative stress by removing free radicals, and helps normalize blood pressure.

All of these functions come together to help reduce inflammation and increase blood flow, two things known to reduce chronic pain.

Infrared Light and Chronic Pain

Because the use of infrared light to treat chronic pain is a relatively new concept, our understanding of how it works and its effectiveness is always expanding. There have been some small-scale studies examining different IR approaches for different ailments that should make all sufferers of chronic pain feel optimistic.

One study looking at chronic low back pain found that once-weekly treatments using a portable, wearable IR device were enough to significantly reduce back pain in the test group compared to the placebo group. This pain decrease was achieved without any adverse effects.

Another placebo-controlled study looked at the use of nerve blockers in combination with IR therapy to reduce pain in people with shoulder periarthritis, myofascial pain syndrome, or lateral epicondylitis. The researchers found that infrared light worked to increase pain reduction further than nerve blockers alone for all ailments.

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Is Infrared Therapy Safe?

Encouragingly, none of the studies looking at infrared light as a therapeutic device have found any adverse effects common to this type of treatment. This is true of both red light, near-IR, and far-IR techniques. 

Just as exciting is the fact that many infrared applicators are small and portable. This makes them exceptionally easy to put to use, whether in the doctor’s office or at home. While quality devices are not cheap, they are certainly worth looking into if you suffer from chronic pain.

If you are new to this type of therapy, it would be worth reaching out to a physical therapist in your area who is familiar with IR therapy. They can help you find the best device, program and schedule to bring your chronic pain down to a more manageable level.

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