Gaga loves infrared saunas so much that she put one in her home. But are their pain-relieving properties the real deal?
According the National Institutes of Health, chronic pain is the number-one cause of long-term disability in the U.S., meaning it's affecting a whole lot of people—100 million to be exact, says a 2015 report. It's not just older Americans who are affected by it, either. Even young, fit, and healthy celebrities deal with this debilitating health issue. After posting on her Instagram about having a bad day dealing with chronic pain, Lady Gaga was so overwhelmed by the comments her fans left for her that she decided to share a little more about her experience with it. While she doesn't disclose the specific cause of her chronic pain, she did give followers an explanation of one of the ways she treats it. (Gaga has been vocal about a variety of important issues, including sexual assault.)
In her caption, Gaga says, "When my body goes into spasm, one thing I find really helps is infrared sauna. I've invested in one. They come in a large box form as well as a low coffin-like form and even some like electric blankets! You can also look around your community for an infrared sauna parlor or homeopathic center that has one."
Okay, so what exactly is an infrared sauna? Well, it's basically a room or pod where you are exposed to light at an infrared frequency (that's the one between visible light and radio waves in case you forgot what you learned in middle school science class). You can also get infrared light treatment from wraps and other products that require less overall commitment. We've even seen infrared sauna studios popping up, like HigherDOSE in NYC. In addition to helping people deal with pain, these saunas are supposed to reduce swelling and inflammation, promote healthy skin, and help to heal wounds. While these claims have not been investigated thoroughly by medical researchers yet, there have been some preliminary studies that are both promising and inconclusive.
To find out the real deal about this new therapy, we decided to talk to an expert in pain management. "The reality is that it's just like a lot of other therapies for pain which are anecdotally based," says Neel Mehta, M.D., medical director of pain management at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. "People will say it works, people will say it doesn't work, people will say that it makes their pain worse, and so on. When we recommend therapies as physicians, we turn to evidence to try to demonstrate whether there's improvement or not, and we don't have robust studies for infrared therapy that provide that evidence."
That doesn't mean you should discount the therapy completely, just that there's not much hard science available to back up that claim that it works for pain—or anything else for that matter. Doctors do have an idea of how infrared may work to reduce swelling and inflammation, though, which could in turn reduce pain. "We think that there's an increase in blood circulation when you're exposed to infrared light. A compound called nitric oxide is present when there's inflammation, and when a patient has infrared therapy, the increase in blood flow drives away the nitric oxide that's accumulating in the area." (FYI, these 10 foods can cause inflammation.)
As with any unstudied medical treatment, there are also some risks to infrared light therapy. Mainly, "if you use it repeatedly it may potentially cause damage to the skin from heat energy," says Mehta. "People who have sensitive skin may want to use it with caution. There's a range of wavelengths within infrared so no one knows exactly which one is the best." This highlights another major problem with the current infrared technology: Because infrared light occurs across a spectrum, no one knows which point in the range is most helpful or most harmful. Additionally, people with certain skin conditions like scleroderma may want to exercise extra caution when using infrared therapy, as their skin may be more likely to be damaged.
The bottom line here is that since we don't know that much about how infrared light works on the body yet, you can't really expect any specific results. "What I always tell my patients is use it with caution because there haven't been any long-term studies," says Mehta. "The harm may not be known yet or the benefit may not be known yet."