Infrared light therapy has been lauded as an effective treatment for all sorts of conditions such as arthritis, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, tendinitis, fractures, varicose veins, and even acne, thin hair, and cold sores. As a relatively inexpensive, non-invasive, treatment that patients can use at home it is not hard to see why it has a large number of fans. Many chiropractors use infrared light therapy to relax patients, as do physical therapists prior to applying other treatments. Some sports trainers use the devices for strains, sprains and muscular problems; some use infrared light therapy for relieving cramp from lactic acid build-up. The question remains, however, as to its efficacy for any of these ailments – including whether infrared light therapy can work for neck pain.
What is Infrared Light Therapy?
Infrared light therapy uses a concentrated beam of high energy, low heat, radiation to stimulate healing and reduce inflammation and pain. Alternatively known as Laser Therapy, Phototherapy, and low-level laser therapy (LLLT) it is often used in pain-relief clinics but can also be used at home by those suffering from neck pain.
The idea behind infrared therapy is that it stimulates the cells in a painful, or damaged, area to produce energy and improve function thereby helping the healing process. Some manufacturers of the devices claim that although dead cells cannot be miraculously brought back to life by infrared therapy, the neighbouring cells will generate new cells to restore function. The laser is thought to be able to penetrate two to three centimetres into the skin, making it possibly effective for conditions such as arthritis in the hands, but less likely to be helpful for deep tissue injuries or dysfunction in conditions such as fibromyalgia. The laser does not penetrate bone, so if neck pain is due to a spinal condition, such as spinal stenosis from osteophyte growth, it is unlikely to be helped by infrared light therapy.
Far-Infrared Treatment for Neck Pain
Far infrared heating pads have also become available in recent years, with many therapists suggesting these to patients for relief of chronic neck pain. These heating pads have been approved by the FDA (which only approves their safety, rather than confirming their usefulness), and can be worn under clothing during the day or night. The far infrared light therapy pads only reach a temperature of around 104-113 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than the common temperature of 131 degrees Fahrenheit for most pain-relief heating pads.
The use of these pads has become popular with some veterinarians, particularly those working with racehorses. This popularity is due to the ability to apply the pads to large areas of the horses back musculature in an effort to increase circulation to the damaged muscles and encourage repair. Trainers consider them particularly useful for treating DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) which can occur during the normal process of muscle growth as tiny tears appear in the muscles which are then repaired making the muscle bigger and stronger.
Some trainers recommend using the far infrared light therapy heating pads as part of the daily training regime for racehorses with the therapy sometimes used for 24hr stretches at a time. Prolotex is one of the favored brands as the bioceramic technology involves a chemical mix impregnated into a bandage which emits infrared rays naturally in order to relieve muscle tension and improve metabolic function in the horses legs and other areas.
Infrared Heating Blanket for Pain Relief
Another popular device is a blanket, manufactured by Thermotex, which can cover a large area; the device, however, needs to be plugged in to work but has a higher intensity than the bandages making it more suited for deeper tissue penetration. Neither of these products is explicitly sold for relief of back or neck pain in humans and patients should proceed accordingly.
Does Infrared Light Therapy for Pain Actually Work?
Although manufacturers of infrared light therapy devices claim that they can stimulate collagen and elastin production and help the body release nitric oxide which relaxes blood vessels and improves circulation, amongst other things, there is no actual proof of this phenomenon occurring. Using the devices for acute neck pain may help to facilitate a speedier recovery with less scarring, and using the treatment for chronic neck pain can make a condition feel more manageable for some but the evidence for efficacy is lacking.
Pulsed Infrared Light Therapy for Neuropathic Neck Pain
A study using pulsed infrared light therapy (PILT) done in 2006 with patients suffering diabetic peripheral neuropathy was found to reduce the symptoms (in this case in the foot). Arnall, et al, stated that “While the exact mechanism of action is not understood, infrared light may improve peripheral neuropathies by improving foot perfusion by stimulating nitric oxide production”. In a follow-up study carried out in 2009, however, Arnall, et al, tested nitric oxide levels in patients and went on to state that:
“Since in individuals where PILT has significantly improved PPS, PILT did not stimulate an increased NO content in the blood, it appears that infrared light improves peripheral protective sensation in patients by a mechanism other than an increased NO production.”
Other studies into infrared therapy for pain are no closer to revealing the mechanism behind the benefits experienced by some patients. Many studies confound the issue by using the therapy as part of an overall treatment incorporating physical therapy, massage, and other treatment modalities (Shiri, et al, 2010). The lack of evidence for clinical use and the heavily promoted commercial products sold with, at best, misinformed claims that ‘studies show effective pain relief’ makes the purchase of such devices a complex decision. Those suffering neck pain may be encouraged to try the infrared therapy as it may be effective for them and has minimal risk in comparison to other treatments for chronic or acute neck pain such as NSAIDs or surgery.
Any Side-Effects from Infrared Light Therapy?
Infrared light therapy is considered very safe and simple to use with no side-effects whether used at a clinic or at home. The neck pain treatment is pain-free and runs no risk of causing burning or scarring as the device does not emit heat.
Far infrared light therapy heating pads are not advised in certain conditions due to the heat that they emit. Patients with Addison’s disease, haemophilia and other bleeding disorders are advised to practice caution in using these pads, and all patients should consult their doctor prior to beginning a new treatment of any kind. The pads should also not be used on a ‘fresh’ injury as they may increase circulation, inflammation, and damage in the area. Application of cold treatment is often better for an acute injury with thermotherapy applied after 48hrs or so.