Infrared therapy for pain: what does it consist of?
Infrared radiations are low-frequency electromagnetic waves capable of transmitting heat, and because of this characteristic they are increasingly being used for therapeutic purposes
Present in medical rehabilitation practices, infrared rays are generated by special lamps – usually tungsten filament lamps with wattages of up to 1000 watts – capable of generating IR radiation at various wavelengths.
The spectrum of radiation emitted by tungsten lamps, in particular, varies between 40,000 and 3,500 A and thus includes infrared, visible and, to a small extent, also ultraviolet rays; however, the greatest emission concerns infrared rays with a wavelength of around 10,000 A.
The heat that these rays transmit is easily absorbed by the body, as it only penetrates the surface of the skin and tissue, and causes beneficial vasodilation as well as stimulation on a nervous and muscular level.
Infrared treatment is particularly suitable for treating specific disorders associated with the circulatory, skeletal and muscular systems.
What are infrared rays used for in rehabilitation medicine?
Infrared is used in rehabilitation, to counteract contractures and muscle pain and to prepare the muscle for massage and physiotherapy treatments.
This is because, when directed onto the area to be treated, the rays heat it up in depth, which leads to a dilation of the blood vessels in the treated area with an increase in local blood circulation and, consequently, greater oxygenation of the tissues, which regenerate.
There is also a stimulating effect on the nerve endings, which reduces pain and relaxes the muscles.
They are therefore indicated for the treatment of neck pain, cervical and lumbar arthrosis, muscle contractures and the treatment of bed sores.
Also useful for colds, ear, nose and throat complaints.
How is an infrared session carried out?
Infrared rays can be used for general or local applications; in both cases the patient is made to undress in the area to be treated and placed in a suitable position to be reached by the infrared rays (sitting or lying on the couch).
In general applications, the light emitted by 4 infrared lamps, which are placed at a distance of 60-80 cm from the subject, is shone on the undressed patient.
It is important to remember at once that in certain subjects these applications can produce hypotension and involvement of the cardiovascular system.
In local applications (the most commonly used in rehabilitation therapy), body surfaces of 30-40 cm in diameter are usually treated with a single infrared lamp.
The following rules must be followed when carrying out such applications:
a) The part to be treated must be denuded.
b) The cephalic region must be protected.
c) The generating lamp must be placed at a distance of 50 cm from the patient.
d) The rays must be perpendicular to the surface to be irradiated.
e) The dosage is based on the duration of irradiation.
How long does an infrared radiation session last and how many sessions are needed?
Obviously these vary depending on the patient, the pathology to be treated and its extent/gravity.
On average, the duration of each session is 15 minutes but can go up to 30.
Cycles of 10 sessions in total are usually carried out.
The advantages of infrared at a glance
1) Improved circulation: thanks to the heat emitted by the infrared lamp, circulation improves considerably and this, results in effectiveness against muscle pain and ‘loosens’ any muscle contraction instantly.
2) Depth of action: they penetrate the skin up to several centimetres inside the body and no cream is able to get there. The penetrating heat promotes healing and rejuvenation.
3) Tissue oxygenation: the infrared lamp is able to improve tissue oxygenation and hydration within the skin.
4) Improved wound healing: thanks to the infrared rays and the power of heat concentrated in a single area, it is able to speed up wound healing thanks to improved oxygenation and circulation.
5) Relaxes muscles: infrared radiation is capable of relaxing any muscle in our body and calms the nervous system.
6) Anti-stress action: the heat of the infrared lamp, especially in the colder months, is capable of improving our mood and stress seems to totally disappear.
Warnings and precautions when using infrared rays
1) Do not use the lamp in any area of the head.
2) The lamp must be kept at a proper distance from the skin, the head must be protected.
3) Do not apply essential oils, lotions and skin creams before using the infrared lamp.
4) If you plan to tan with the infrared lamp, the answer is no.
5) Cover your eyes. Do not stare directly into the light emitted by the lamp.
IR rays in a curative context: are they safe?
The use of IR rays for therapeutic purposes is becoming increasingly popular today, partly because there are no known contraindications to their use.
However, it is always advisable for treatments to be supervised by experienced physicians in order to avoid summary interventions and overexposure that could cause skin burns or heatstroke.
It is important to remember that infrared therapy is contraindicated or at least not recommended:
- In case of serious cardiovascular disease.
- In case of fever over 38 degrees.
- In case of varicosis, diabetes, haemophilia, cancer.
- In pregnancy, lactation and during the menstrual cycle.
- In patients under 6 years of age.
- In patients who have recently taken alcohol or drugs.
They are mainly due to heat and are erythema, sweating, hypotension, heat stroke and burns.
Infrared erythema appears during irradiation and disappears immediately after stopping treatment.
The erythema is generated by the intense superficial vasodilation produced by thermal elevation.
More or less profuse sweating may occur in the irradiated area due to the stimulation of the sweat glands by the infrared radiation.
Hypotension (lowering of blood pressure) caused by vasodilation may occur in some subjects if the treatment covers large areas of the body.
Lipotimic episodes may occur during general applications in cardiopathic subjects.
Burns occur if the intensity of the source is considerable and if there are disturbances of sensitivity.
As already mentioned several times, infrared radiation should never be directed at the head because there is a danger of heat stroke.
For these reasons, it is advisable to protect the skull with a head covering when performing applications on the cervical spine.
The presence of an experienced physician is effective in preventing all side effects.
Contrary to other practitioners – who apply the machine and carelessly leave the subject alone to receive the infrared rays – I, on the other hand, remain next to the patient throughout the treatment, to avoid lipotimic episodes and burns typically caused by the patient’s movements carelessly bringing the treated area close to the lamp.