Infrared Light Therapy for Pain Relief: How Does it Work?

Runner with a painful knee joint glowing red.

One way to deal with occasional or chronic pain is to shine a light on it, literally. It has been discovered that red and infrared light can exert certain effects on living cells, with numerous applications for health and healing. Infrared light therapy (ILT), in particular, offers pain relief benefits that work for everyone from casual exercisers to professional athletes. If you’re looking for non-addictive and healthy pain relief, learn how infrared light therapy can work for your pain. 

Infrared Light vs. Red Light

You don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate red and infrared light. If you’re considering light therapy for pain, you’ll see different products available that have one or the other, or both types of light. Therefore, it’s helpful to know what makes red and infrared light different. The biggest difference is red light works on the skin’s surface, while infrared penetrates deeper into the body. To understand how they work differently, it’s time for a quick refresher in physics! 

Light appears as different colors according to its wavelength. The human eye can detect wavelengths ranging from about 400 to 700 nanometers (nm), a tiny range when you consider all forms of energy. Red light resides at the end of the spectrum with the longest visible wavelengths. Just beyond that range lies infrared light. Because it’s outside the visible wavelength spectrum, you won’t see infrared light. 

What is Infrared Light Therapy?

Infrared light therapy refers to the use of infrared waves emitted from LED diodes to treat living tissue. NASA first used visible red and invisible infrared light to aid plant growth in space. From there, they learned of its positive effects on other types of living tissue. The waves penetrate deep beneath the skin to enhance cell regeneration and increase blood flow. This action results in less muscle soreness, fewer spasms, and less stiffness, among other benefits.

Light therapy devices made for home or clinical use can deliver infrared energy to a particular area of the body where pain or stiffness is present. Many people who use infrared light for pain report significant improvement of symptoms with regular use.

How Does Infrared Light TherapyWork?

What is going on beneath the surface when you use an infrared light therapy device? The light energy penetrates painlessly through multiple layers of skin to reach muscles and nerves. The cells absorb the energy and become more active. Blood flow to the area increases to further support regrowth and regeneration. This combination of activity works to reduce inflammation and repair injuries.

Remember, the human eye cannot detect infrared light. On treatment devices with both red and infrared lights, you may think that only the red ones are working. High speed digital cameras, such as one you might have on your smartphone, can usually “see” infrared light, so try taking a picture to confirm. 

Is Infrared Light Therapy Dangerous?

Light therapy is sometimes referred to as radiation therapy; do not let the word “radiation” scare you away. Radiation simply refers to energy coming from a source—anything from a lightbulb to a radio. 

Red and infrared light are non-ionizing forms of radiation. This means they do not pose the same risks as UV light or x-rays. Ionizing radiation contains enough energy to “mess with” the structure of atoms. Non-ionizing radiation in light therapy devices does not.

When selecting a home ILT device to treat pain, look for one that is FDA cleared. This designation means that the FDA has reviewed the product and determined that it works in the same way as other technology already deemed low-risk for consumers. 

What Types of Pain Can Infrared Light Treat? 

Infrared light therapy can target practically any part of the body (except the eyes). A popular use is to treat chronic low back pain, a condition that affects 80 percent of people at some point in their lives. A flexible, wrap-around light therapy device can easily target the low back. However, that’s just the beginning. Infrared light therapy may also treat:

  • Neck aches and stiffness
  • Shoulder soreness, such as from sitting at a computer
  • Upper back, such as after a workout
  • Knee pain and stiffness
  • Ankles aches, including from running
  • Wrist issues, including carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Feet, when sore from standing, arthritis, or other causes
  • Hands, when tired and achy from arthritis or other issues

These are only suggestions, and there are nearly limitless options for where to use infrared light therapy. There are also oral care devices that use infrared light to treat inflammation and pain of the gums.

How Often Can You Use Infrared Light Therapy? 

If you rely on a spa or clinical environment, you may get an appointment a couple of times per week. But that’s the costlier option and involves upfront scheduling. With your own infrared light therapy device, you can treat your own pain once or twice a day from the comfort of your home, the office, or the gym. Treatment time varies from 14 to 25 minutes, depending on the device and the specific pain issue, for each area. For the best results, time your use in one area, then move the device to the next area you wish to treat.

What Do Scientists and Doctors Say about Infrared Light Therapy?

Infrared light for pain, and light therapy generally, are still fairly new concepts in the health and wellness community. As a result, the body of research on light therapy is still in its early stages. However, it’s growing rapidly as interest increases, and there are promising research results pouring out of the scientific community about infrared light therapy.. Below are just a few examples.

Back Pain Research

The journal Pain Research and Management published a study on infrared therapy for chronic low back pain. The study followed 40 patients over six years. Patients used wearable devices that emitted light in a wavelength range of 800-1,200nm. They reported a significant reduction in pain with no adverse effects.

Another study, published in Turkish Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, looked at the impact of ILT on spondylitis, or inflammatory arthritis of the spine. In the study, patients treated with ILT experienced significantly improved activity, function and quality of life.

Nerve Pain Research

An article in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology looked at infrared’s ability to stimulate nerves and support wound healing. That study concluded, “Nerve cells respond particularly well to infrared radiation.”

Other Promising Areas for Infrared Light Therapy Research

Infrared light therapy is being studied for numerous other issues, for example, as a way to improve circulation in people with diabetes. The medical community is even looking at how it can be used in neurosurgery. With more research taking place, we will likely understand and fine-tune the use of ILT for pain more and more. In the meantime, millions of people experience the benefits first hand using home or clinical devices.

The best way to learn whether infrared light therapy will work for your pain, inflammation, or muscle and joint stiffness is to give it a try. Shop dpl®️ pain relief devices now to find the right infrared light therapy product for you.

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