Are Infrared Lamps the Next Great Breakthrough in Athlete Recovery?

Infrared therapy can relieve pain and ensure faster recovery from injuries. Learn more from STACK Expert Gary Moller.

Every athlete knows that heat and cold packs can soothe the pain of injuries and alleviate soreness after tough workouts. But it appears that simple infrared heat and light can further improve the ability to recover.

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At first glance, such a claim may seem too good to be true. Light from infrared lamps? How can light heal injuries? But in a randomized, controlled trial conducted in 2006, patients with lower-back pain reported lower levels of pain after infrared treatment. The health insurance company Aetna considers infrared therapy "medically necessary as a heat modality for musculoskeletal indications."

So how do the unique properties of infrared light aid the body's ability to recover from injuries and pain? The fundamental idea is not much different from heat packs. Among other reasons, heat packs work because they stimulate blood flow to affected areas. Better blood flow means the body will recover faster and pain will ease quicker.

However, the heat from a regular heat pack dissipates fairly quickly inside the body. In contrast, infrared light penetrates deeper into the body, stimulates more red blood cells and further enhances the ability to recover from injuries.

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Some may be worried about potential side effects of infrared's penetration ability, or perhaps concerned about infrared radiation. There is nothing to worry about. We are exposed to infrared radiation every day of our lives. Infrared radiation can be dangerous only if it is concentrated into a narrow, high-powered beam—namely, a laser.

Infrared light therapy mainly uses light emitting diodes (LEDs), which emit incoherent narrow-spectrum light. LED lights are increasingly popular for a wide range of uses. They ensure that the light is dissipated throughout the body, which would not be possible with a laser.

That is not to say that infrared therapy is without risk. Individuals on anti-inflammatory medication should not use infrared therapy. Such medication is used to decelerate cell activity that is causing excessive inflammation, which suggests that anti-inflammatory medicine and infrared therapy would cancel each other out. Pregnant women and people with eye injuries should also not use infrared therapy.

These concerns are mild at best. As noted above, infrared therapy has been successfully clinically proven to assuage patients' suffering.

People can now purchase individual infrared lamps for their personal use, but this should only be done with a physician's approval. The Los Angeles Times recommended a few infrared therapy devices, noting that "Physical therapists are increasingly recommending low-level infrared light therapy as an alternative to traditional electric heating pads for relieving muscle aches and tension."

More ambitious individuals can even construct an infrared sauna, using infrared light in place of the dry heat of a traditional sauna. However, the benefits of infrared sauna appear to be ambiguous. The Mayo Clinic has observed that "larger and more rigorous studies are needed" to confirm some of the purported health effects of infrared light.

Some people believe that in addition to relieving muscular pain and injury, infrared light can have additional positive health effects—including improving cardiovascular health, preventing strokes, and handling ulcers. Aetna has indicated, however, that infrared therapy for dealing with these other issues is "experimental and investigational."

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Nevertheless, it is clear that for those who work out and for those who suffer from chronic muscular pain, infrared therapy can have real benefits in relieving pain and ensuring a faster recovery from injuries. Talk to your doctor about its effects if you think you may need it.

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