Infrared relieves pain on rheumatism

By: Kitty van Gerven

An infrared sauna has a positive effect on people with rheumatic Arthritis and Bechterew’s disease. The pain and stiffness rheumatic patients often suffer from, demonstrably decreases after a sauna session. That’s the conclusion of a research that has been exemplified on an international congress of rheumatologists in the United States.

Who hasn’t seen ‘The red light’ before? Many households use one in case of a stiff neck or a strained back. Since the fifties it has been common knowledge that the local operation of infrared has a positive effect on joint and muscle pains. Because the radiant heat deeply penetrates the body, the tissues get enough blood and the suppleness increases. So it’s not strange that when infrared sauna’s entered the market years ago, they especially were praised for its effect on joint pains and stiffness. Manufacturers were happy to let the consumers, especially rheumatic patients, believe that their sauna’s brought relief. But the question was: Was this just a sales pitch? Or was their actually an element of truth to it? The scientific proof that the total heating of the body with infrared light has the same effect on chronic disorders as the local treatment of a sore spot, wasn’t proved anywhere in the world.

The Medisch Spectrum Twente (MST) and the Saxion Hogeschool in Ede brought more clarity to the matter. A scientic research both institutions conducted for sauna importer Health Company for the last three years, demonstrated that an infrared sauna actually gas a wholesome effect on people with rheumatic disorders. The research, to which seven students contributed, was led by doctor Frits Oosterveld, lector at the academy for physiotherapy at Saxion Hogeschool, and professor Hans Rasker of the MST. It was carried out with 17 subjects who all suffered from rheumatic Arthritis (chronic joint inflammation), 17 people who had Bechterew’s disease (inflammation of the spine which can lead to stiffness) and a control group of 21 healthy subjects, mostly between 35 and 50 years.


For four weeks, the subjects visited an infrared sauna twice a week. Beforehand as well as during the treatments, several days after the treatment ended and again a month later, the effects on pain, stiffness and fatigue were measured. The outcome was astonishing. “Patients with rheumatic Arthritis stated that after a sauna session of half an hour, the stiffness decreases by 40%. With Bechterew’s patients, the pain decreased by 50% and the stiffness even by 60%”, says Frits Oosterveld. He says that the differences between the situation before and after the sauna session are so considerable, according to him there is a demonstrable effect. In regard to fatigue this is not the case. According to the respondents it decreased a little bit, “but this difference was not that significant one could call it proven”. On the midterm and long term the sauna treatment turned out less effective. “Already after a few days you can see the pain and stiffness return and after a month the effect is almost gone”.

For the lector from Enschede the conclusion is clear: An infrared sauna offers a good therapy with relief of the symptoms for a short period. If a rheumatic patient wants to benefit from its effects, he’d have to visit the sauna very frequently. According to Oosterveld, for that reason, a treatment in the hospital or a clinic is not obvious. Even more so because going to hospital and getting dressed and undressed is more stressful for a rheumatic patient. A sauna at home, one which can be used in the mornings or evenings before sleeping, would be a good option. Oosterveld thinks that perhaps the purchase of a sauna or infrared treatment on medical grounds will qualify for compensation by health insurance companies. However, we’re not there yet. “We’ll have to do more research. Including other groups of rheumatic patients like people with fibromyalgia, Arthrosis or other disorders to the musculoskeletal.” Although it’s still unclear if infrared therapy is effective on these patients, Oosterveld is already convinced of its positive effects in general. The best proof for that was provided by the control group of healthy subjects, participating in the research. “Even for healthy people, half an hour in an infrared sauna is beneficent.” To Oosterveld, this is not surprising. “Because your body is being subjected to 55 degrees Celsius, your entire physiological mechanism is being activated to maintain your body temperature, the so called core temperature. The heart starts beating faster and the blood vessels dilate which lowers the blood pressure and causes the skin to warm up and perspire. In short, even though you’re not moving, your body works as hard as a jogger jogging on a steady pace. Afterwards, you get the exact, vital feeling one would have after sporting.” According to Oosterveld, because of this exertion of the body alone, a sauna session for rheumatic patients is advisable. “Because of their disorder, often these people cannot actively participate in sports which makes the sauna an appealing alternative.” Moreover, during the measurement of the heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and core temperature there appeared to be no differences between the rheumatic patients and the healthy subjects, which according to Oosterveld means that there aren’t any contra indications for the use of a sauna for rheumatic patients. “And yet it is not advisable for rheumatic patients to use a sauna when the disorder is in an acute phase. Because under the influence of the heat the inflammation will increase.” Even though numerous affairs still need further research, according to Oosterveld the MST and Enschede Hogeschool already served an important purpose, namely providing rheumatic patients with clarity about the operation of infrared radiant heat. This week, Oosterveld announced the conclusions of the research on an international congress of rheumatologists in the United States. These findings will be published in professional journals shortly.

From: Brabants Dagblad, November 21st 2001.

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