A Guide To Near Infrared Light Therapy For Chronic Pain Relief

Last Updated on December 28, 2023 by Richard

Got “tennis elbow”, back pain, plantar fasciitis, arthritis, or some other long term pain?  Near infrared light therapy will ease your pain, and might even heal it. 

Over the counter pain relievers mostly just mask the pain.

However, near infrared light actually promotes healthy cell tissues.  So your body can heal itself.

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Near Infrared Light Therapy Is FDA Approved for Safety

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(above) Red Light and Near Infrared Light Therapy for any part of your body. Wearable wrap provides deep penetrating light therapy to speed up the body’s own healing system. It helps your body to heal the skin, muscles, bones, joints and much more.

This technology was developed by NASA and is FDA approved.

Near infrared light therapy is a popular new treatment for providing pain relief and for promoting healing. In the scientific community, it is known as photobiomodulation. [9]

The therapy relies on invisible light transmitted at a wavelength of 700nm to 1200nm, which delivers energy to your cells. [9]

Near infrared light therapy has been found to be effective in numerous studies all over the world, and to date there have been no adverse side-effects documented.

What is Near Infrared Light Therapy?

This therapy is very similar to red light therapy, except it relies on infrared energy, which cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Infrared light can penetrate deeper into the body than red light, so it is able to get into the soft tissues and muscles, and provide greater benefit to your joints and bones.

Near infrared light therapy combines the basic idea of red light therapy with the deeper penetration of infrared light, and researchers believe that it has a huge amount of potential.

There have been studies conducted into the potential for this therapy to help reverse traumatic brain injury[1] and to help with the healing of strokes as well.

It is thought that it could even help to regenerate spinal nerves that have been damaged[2], and researchers are studying how it can impact on the eyes and the brain[3].

All of this research is still in the early stages, but there is definitely some promising evidence out there.

The FDA has approved near infrared light therapy devices for home use and many people do use them to treat chronic pain.

The reason that these therapies are so interesting is that, unlike some other devices, they don’t just mask the pain while you’re using them. The light actually helps the injured body tissues to heal.

This means that after a course of repeated treatments there is the genuine possibility of the pain being resolved.

Why block pain with a TENS machine, or take painkillers to dull the pain, when you can feel better in both the short and long term?

 

Girl receiving near infrared light therapy on her back.
Infrared light can’t be seen by the eye. So, oftentimes a visible red light is also used in a device so that you know the device is “on”. Visible red light therapy is also beneficial.

How Near Infrared Light Therapy Works

Infrared light energy uses a type of light that is, as you would guess, known as ‘near infrared’. This infrared works on the 770nm to 1200nm wavelengths. [9]

There are two other types of infrared:

  • Mid infrared, which is what your TV’s remote control probably relies on.
  • Far infrared, which is what those infrared heaters that you see on patios and in gyms and saunas use.

You would likely get the same therapeutic benefit from an infrared massager that used far infrared as you would from near infrared, but longer wavelengths will penetrate deeper into the body and that isn’t always desirable.

If you want to just enjoy a therapeutic effect on your skin, then standard red light treatments should be enough.

For pain in your muscles and joints, the near infrared spectrum will penetrate deep enough to get the job done.

The infrared energy helps to support healing because the photoreceptors in each cell will absorb the light, and that will help to increase blood flow and stimulate the flow of oxygen and essential nutrients to each cell.

The improved blood flow means that waste products are taken away, and that inflammation is reduced. In the short term, you should feel less pain and in the long term, the healing process will be accomplished.

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The Difference Between Light Therapy and Infrared Therapy

Light therapy is something that has been accepted for a long time. Even our ancestors from thousands of years ago had an intuitive understanding of the idea that if you were to sit out in the sun you would feel better.

We know now that if you don’t get enough sunlight you are at risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) [4]. Many people report that in the winter they feel depressed, and that ‘depression’ is the result of reduced serotonin.  Which can be fixed with exposure to sunlight.

Light therapy works on the idea that exposing ourselves to controlled levels of a certain kind of light can be beneficial.

It is thought to help with sleep disorders, depression, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Many people have started buying light boxes to sit in front of at home.

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This Light Therapy Lamp provides ultra bright, full spectrum, LED light without any UV radiation.

It eliminates the wintertime blues they call SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

You can enjoy three brightness settings that will make you smile again.

Exposure to quality light for 30 minutes a day can improve the levels of serotonin in your bloodstream. 

It can help to regulate your body clock as well. [9]  So that you sleep at the right time, wake up at the right time, and generally feel better.

The main difference between light therapy and near infrared therapy (770-1200nm) [9] is that light therapy works on the visible part of the light spectrum, which is the range from 400nm to 480nm.

Color light therapy narrows that down to the idea that specific colors of light have different impacts. Light therapy can work with a wider range of the spectrum.

Red light therapy, specifically, focuses on that narrow end of the spectrum from visible red light to infrared light. Visible red light is between 630nm and 700nm, and it is just enough to penetrate the surface of the skin. [9]

Near infrared can penetrate deeper, into muscles and soft tissue.

Light therapy is useful for helping people get their circadian rhythm (body clock) back into check, and it can help lift your mood and alertness too.

Near infrared therapy helps to reduce pain and inflammation, promotes protein synthesis (so it can promote the regrowth and repair of collagen), and promotes cell detoxification and regeneration.

Near Infrared Treatments

Different cells in the body have different capacities to absorb light. The skin responds well to blue wavelengths (treats acne), while other colors can penetrate deeper. [9]

Near Infrared treatments are usually done by LED devices. The reason for this is that an LED can disperse the light over a larger surface area than a halogen light or a laser.

In addition, it is easier to control the temperature of the surface as well. LEDs can deliver the right kind of light at a lower optical power output.

You can use an LED and not have to worry about it causing skin damage. [9]

Before LED bulbs were available, doctors used Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT) which does have the ablity to damage the skin.

The LED will disperse the light over a nice big surface area, so you can treat a large aching muscle, for example, quite quickly.

The Benefits of Near Infrared Therapy

There are many potential benefits to using near infrared therapy:

  • Stimulates mitochondria [9] to produce more ATP energy.
  • May boost metabolism slightly.
  • Stimulates the production of white blood cells.
  • Reduces inflammation. [8]
  • Promotes wound healing.
  • Improves circulation.
  • Provides short term pain relief.
  • Rejuvenates the skin.
  • Helps to relax muscles and therefore promote joint mobility.

There are some who would go so far as to claim that near infrared therapy can help to stave off the effects of aging. That is a bold claim but it is one that has some basis in truth.

Near infrared therapy can help to improve circulation and promote skin repair, so if you are looking to fix stretch marks or scars then it could help with that. [10]

If your skin is looking dull and lifeless, then improving the circulation could help to make you look more flushed and youthful. It is no substitute for a healthy diet and drinking lots of water, but it will most certainly help.

Animal Studies With Proven Anti-inflammatory Results From Near-Infrared Light Therapy. fullstridehealth.com

What is Inflammation

We have talked a lot about how near infrared therapy can help to fight inflammation, but what exactly is inflammation and why is it bad?

Well, inflammation is the body’s natural response to infection. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but if it lasts too long it can be a problem.

Inflammation is how your body responds to injury or infection. If you have an injury near the surface of your skin, then you will notice redness, swelling, warmth and pain.

The inflammation happens partly as a protective response as cells from your immune system go to the site of the damage to treat it.

Inflammation is not bad if it is a short-term thing, but there are some conditions which are characterized by long-term inflammation – such as Chron’s disease and arthritis.

Inflammation is actually quite a complex process, and it can change depending on what has caused the injury. It could be the immune system responding, or clotting proteins, or something else entirely.

When inflammation is caused by a cut, sprain, strain, or infection, it is not necessarily a bad thing. When it is caused by stress or fatigue it causes problems.

Prolonged, chronic inflammation is linked to a number of diseases, and excessive inflammation makes any disease much worse.

Let’s imagine that you have a sports injury that won’t quite heal. You’re in pain, with limited mobility, for no good reason. It is quite likely that you have chronic inflammation.

Indeed, the inflammation could limit your range of motion, which adversely affects your posture. Which in turn, creates poor movement patterns, that makes the injury worse.

That’s where physical therapy, massage, and things like near infrared therapy come into play.

Bringing down the inflammation is very beneficial, because it allows freedom of movement, better blood circulation, and faster healing.

Light therapies (both infrared and visible) are becoming increasingly popular as a way of helping people to cope with sports injuries.

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Infrared Massagers for Persistent Injuries

If you’re curious about trying near-infrared light therapy and want to try a massager for yourself, then the good news is that you actually have quite a few options.

The challenge is finding an infrared massager that is strong enough to be effective and that uses the right kind of light.

What sets an infrared massager apart from some of the other models is the type of light and the spectrum that it operates on.

Some massage devices offer a range of options, so you can have a vibrating/pulsing massage, a heat massage, or infrared.

Heat therapy can be useful, just like infrared therapy, for promoting circulation and for relaxing your muscles.

Make sure that the massager you buy is big enough to treat the area that you want to work on, has a long enough handle for you to reach the areas you want to massage, and actually uses infrared, not just red light.

There is evidence to suggest that infrared massage can offer pain relief for a number of injuries, including back pain[6].

Be aware, however, that while the act of massaging a painful body part will provide pain relief in the short term, any healing benefit from the infrared is not actually instant.

Infrared light can help to stimulate the body’s own natural healing process, but it takes time for the cells to actually heal.

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Tissue Healing With Infrared

Researchers have found that near-infrared light can act as a catalyst on an enzyme known as cytochrome oxidase. [9]

This sends signals to the mitochondria [5], which are the structures in the cell that produce ATP ( Adenosine triphosphate) energy. [9]

Body cells use ATP as energy, and for healing too. When infrared light penetrates the skin, it helps to increase the production of ATP, which means that damaged tissue can recover more quickly. [9]

That’s not the only mechanism that infrared light works on, though. As ATP production increases, so too does the rate at which the cells produce fibroblasts.

Collagen and other soft tissues are made from fibroblasts. So if you have torn tendons or ligaments, then using infrared therapy could speed up the rate at which these heal.

Blood circulation to the tendons and ligaments is generally poor. Which means that they heal very slowly. Red light and near infrared light will significantly speed up the healing process.

Coping With Chronic Pain

Some people use infrared therapy to cope with chronic pain. For example the pain from fibromyalgia, and there is a lot of evidence supporting this idea. [11]

If you are suffering from chronic pain, then daily massages with an infrared massager could be a beneficial part of your treatment. It is quite possible that you will be able to reduce the amount of medications you take.

Be sure to get a diagnosis for the cause of the pain before trying infrared light massages. Also, do not stop any existing prescribed therapies, to use massage treatments or light therapy, without first discussing them with your doctor. In some cases, medication to manage pain may also be providing other therapeutic effects.

Who Should Not Use Infrared Therapies?

Most people can use infrared light therapy quite safely, but there are some people for whom it might be contraindicated.

If you are undergoing steroid therapy, then you should not use infrared light therapy. In addition, if you are taking anti-inflammatory medication then you should not use infrared light therapy.

The reason for these contraindications is that inflammation is an important biological mechanism. Anti-inflammatory medications will actually ‘cancel out’ a lot of the accelerated ATP production and other cell activities that come from light therapy, so there would be no benefit to the treatment.

Talk to your doctor if you are worried about taking anti-inflammatories and are looking for an alternative option for pain management. In some cases, near infrared light therapy could be something that would be sufficient to manage your pain.

It is also not advisable (at this time) to use LED light treatment on an eye injury. There is some research on mice for treating macular degeneration. However, we don’t have enough knowledge to promote it for vision problems.

Pregnant women should not use the treatment over their uterus, because there has not been sufficient research done onto how such therapy would affect an unborn child.

It is also not advisable to use the treatment on any growth that could be cancerous. If you have a growth on your skin, and you are unsure what it is, then you should seek professional medical advice as soon as possible.

Skin cancer has a much better prognosis when it is identified quickly. If you delay treatment then there is the risk that if your unusual looking wound is cancerous, it could spread and be much harder to treat.

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Heat and Cold Treatments

Most people have probably heard of heat therapy, ice therapy, and contrast bathing, to help with muscular pain.

Ice is used to bring down swelling, and can be particularly useful for sprains and strains when it is used immediately after an injury.

Although the idea of using ice is now something that has become a subject of debate. Some people are simply suggesting compression, rest and elevation, and ignoring the ‘ice’ idea.

Heat is used to help to warm up sore areas, and increase blood flow. It also helps to reduce stiffness and improve mobility. So, it could be helpful for people as a precursor to physical therapy.

What is particularly interesting is the idea that infrared heat can help with cardiovascular health as well as muscular health in other areas.

Risk factors that may benefit from infrared therapy include cholesterol [12] and hypertension.

It is thought that the benefit may come from this fact: The demand put on your body when it is exposed to heat in a sauna is similar to the level of demand that it takes to walk at a moderate pace. So, relaxing in an infrared sauna is almost like getting some gentle exercise.

Of course, there are other muscular benefits to exercise, and light impact exercise can be good for your bones too. So it is important that you do try to get some real exercise!

Another area that heat can help with is wound healing.

Because it boosts blood circulation, it can help to boost nitric oxide levels in the area near the wound, which can reduce wound healing times.

People who suffer from diabetes often have poor circulation and this can mean that small wounds to their extremities take longer to heal, and that they are therefore at greater risk of infection.

Infrared heat can help to support wound healing in those with diabetes[7].

Is It Worth Buying an Infrared Device?

There are some good brands for home medical devices, such as Beurer, and if you can find one of those then it could be a good purchase.

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  • Effective deep penetration: Ir light therapy provides better pain relief by penetrating even deep layers of the skin. It improves cardiovascular health (blood flow) treats inflammation and promotes cell repair
  • Beurer safety features: 100% UV-free, built-in timer (1-15 mines) and overheat protection; material of the underside: soft, breathable cotton
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Infrared therapy is an addition to your other treatments and not a replacement for seeing a doctor or a physical therapist.

Infrared can certainly help to improve your quality of life if you have a vague, nagging injury but it is not the only option that you have for healing.

Buy an infrared light therapy device if you are looking to improve circulation and support your body’s healing, and if you are looking for a way to reduce stress and anxiety.

These devices will help you to relax and will boost your mood while you let nature take its course.

They can help to get the blood flowing and give you an “I feel better already” boost, but you will need to do everything else right.

That means resting, doing physical therapy to improve range of motion, getting regular exercise to keep your bone density up, and working on avoiding future damage.

Infrared light therapy is just one addition to a wider toolkit when it comes to pain management and injury repair.

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  • PENETRATES SKIN TO SOOTHE AND COMFORT PAIN: Aggravated and angry pain won’t let you forget when they’re unhappy due to injury or strain. This infrared heating wand stimulates the problem areas where it is applied. The heat encourages blood to flow to the affected area, bringing with it everything your body uses to fix troubled areas and muscles, speeding up recovery time.
  • REDUCES MUSCLE STIFFNESS AND JOINT SWELLING: a red light wave similar to sunlight passes through the skin to deeper tissue and stimulate circulation. But unlike the sun, the infrared heating light does not give off dangerous UVA or UVB rays, giving your body safe, localized support. Although considered a heating device, this infrared wand is not hot to the touch and will not burn your skin.
  • PROFESSIONAL QUALITY: It might seem like professional athletes are able to recover from injuries quicker than the average person, but that is in part due to near-infrared light found in this professional quality light wand. Leading doctors, physical therapists, and trainers use infrared heating light to help get professional athletes back on their feet and back to work quickly.
  • STANDOUT PRODUCT FEATURES: This handheld infrared light wand is designed so that you can have professional quality care but with all the convenience of never leaving home. Your body had plenty of angles and curves, so this device features an angled head that helps cover just about any area. It’s 6 ft long cord means that you can sit, and relax in the most convenient locations.

Sources:

[1] Self-administered light therapy may improve cognitive function after traumatic brain injury.

[2] Spinal cord response to laser treatment of injured peripheral nerve.

[3] Low-level light therapy of the eye and brain.

[4] Seasonal Affective Disorder.

[5] Photobiomodulation with 808-nm diode laser light promotes wound healing of human endothelial cells through increased reactive oxygen species production stimulating mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation.

[6] Infrared therapy for chronic low back pain: A randomized, controlled trial.

[7] Diabetic Wound Imaging Using a Noncontact Near-Infrared Scanner.

[8] Effect of NASA light-emitting diode irradiation on wound healing.

[9] Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation.

[10] Management of stretch marks (with a focus on striae rubrae).

[11] Effects of low power laser and low dose amitriptyline therapy on clinical symptoms and quality of life in fibromyalgia: a single-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

[12] Maloney RJ, Shanks SC, Jenney E. The reduction in cholesterol and triglyceride serum levels following low-level laser irradiation: A non-controlled, non-randomized pilot study. Lasers Surg Med. 2009;21S:66.

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17 thoughts on “A Guide To Near Infrared Light Therapy For Chronic Pain Relief”

  1. Richard, Thanks for the thorough article. I have looked into infrared therapy before, but have never really followed through. You’ve given me a better understanding of why I should go ahead and try it for my pain.

    Reply
  2. Richard, I’ve been a fervent supporter of led light therapy but for the purpose of skin care but now I know what it can do for your health and well-being, thank you.

    I’ll certainly put your advice into practice for some of my minor pains.

    Reply
  3. Like the idea of this- how long does it take for it to work? Have tried hot and cold treatment for median ligament knee strain, which has has neglible results so far.

    Reply
    • How long it takes can vary quite a bit from person to person and ailment to ailment.
      When I use a combination of red light and near infrared light on my back I have a sensation that I can’t describe.
      So, I know something is happening, but I don’t know what it is.
      Since I am in good health (no back pain) I look at it as a “tune up”.

      Reply
  4. Research into the benefits of near-infrared and red light therapy for eye health is very promising. Studies on animals show that photobiomodulation can heal damage to eyes from excessive bright light in the retina. This kind of damage is similar to the damage that occurs in age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

    Reply
    • This is something I will be looking into more when I get the chance.

      The study that I saw basically said that the mitochondria were healthier, because of the near infrared light used on mice.
      That is essentially what red light therapy does also. Just that near infrared therapy reaches deeper into the tissues.

      When we age, supposedly that is because our mitochondria are not functioning as well as they used to. So, anything we can do to keep them functioning at peak performance should keep us younger and healthier longer.

      This red light and near infrared light panel is big enough to treat the head and shoulders at the same time. So, you can protect your eyesight and look younger at the same time.

      Reply
    • What I’m about to say is a bit misleading, but it is a guideline. The Irradiance (brightness) of a red light therapy lamp should be 100 mWats/cm2 (100 milliwats per square centimeter).
      However, near infrared light is not visible and therefore doesn’t have any brightness (Irradiance).
      Additionally that brightness diminishes with distance.
      So, at a distance of 6 inches you may get 100 mW/cm2 but at 12 inches it might only be 80mW/cm2
      Many devices do not have any such rating listed for their devices. So, reading customer reviews is the only practical way to know if the device is effective.

      Reply
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    Reply
  6. I recently started using a Near Infrared/LED panel for back pain. I put it behing my back when sitting at my desk. It is a hard square so I don’t actually lean against it, but I do wonder if it is safe for this device to actually touch my bare skin. I am sitting about 2″-3″ away from it now and I do think I’m starting to feel some pain relief. Is it safe to rest my bare skin against this device?

    Reply
    • Having it touch your skin is safe. However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
      The closer you are to the device the stronger the light intensity, and the deeper the effects will be into your body.
      The closer the device is to the body, the smaller the area being treated. That doesn’t seem to be your problem.
      Rubbing your body against the device will start to cover it with skin oils and dead skin cells, which might tend to reduce the device’s effectiveness. That is because the light is now possibly being somewhat scattered by the oils. Although the light will pass through and the reduced effectiveness is probably negligible.
      There is the possibility of cracking or somehow breaking the bulbs from body pressure. This would be my biggest concern.

      Reply
  7. My question is for near IR is how long per treatment, how many times per day and total length? Also, how long to affect relief for say back pain for me, and an arthritic wrist in a large k9. Is there maintenance protocols after the symptoms have subsided?

    Reply
    • Hi Mark,
      Typically 10-15 minutes each session, and 3-5 times per week. Do that for a couple of weeks, and see how you progress.
      Some people have noticeable results in a few days. However, 2 weeks is not unusual for seeing some results.
      After 2-3 weeks you can judge for yourself if you want to treat every day.
      Once per day is better than more times per day. That lets the body use the energy received and to adjust, without overloading the body.
      As a maintenance treatment you can go back to 3 times per week, and just 10 minutes. Everybody is different. So you will have to judge for yourself.
      The instructions for your device should have some suggestions also.
      In my own experience, I’m not trying to heal anything, but to stay healthy until way past 100 years of age. I like 10 minutes per session.
      Let me know how the therapy works out for you.

      Also, your dog will let you know when they have had enough, by walking away.

      Reply
  8. Hello Richard,

    I’ve learned–the painful way, unfortunately–that there can be joint conditions where the inflammation in it is caused by infection, most
    notably “Staph.” (Happens quite a bit with finger (felon) infections that
    lead to finger “tendon sheath infection/inflammation.”)

    So in such situations wouldn’t near-infrared be of little help since it
    would only temporarily reduce the inflammation, which would return
    as long as the infection is still present. So far, from the research I’ve done only UV and Blue Light Therapies are effective against bacteria, but are
    incapable of penetrating joint-deep.

    The only way I can figure out how near-infrared might be beneficial in
    these types of situations is to first treat the infected/inflammed joint with transdermal anti-bacterials such as a combo of tea tree oil, dmso, colloidal silver and maybe emu oil… and allow these to reach the joint, then use a near-infrared device to perhaps aid their reach to the area by increasing circulation. Does It Appear That I Might Be On To Something Here?

    Reply
    • I have experience using colloidal silver both topically and by mouth for various reasons. I have read a NIH (National Institutes of Health) study that used it to treat staph infections in open wounds in mice. So, I would (keep in mind that I’m not a medical professional) use the colloidal silver by mouth, 3 times per day. Also, you should be taking pro-biotics, because the colloidal silver will kill off your good intestinal bacteria also. I don’t know how well the colloidal silver penetrates the skin, but the skin does absorb to some extent, everything put on it. So, personally, I would do that also. The idea being that the colloidal silver will reach the joint infection via a shorter route than through the bloodstream. Another product that reduces inflammation is CBD oil. However, I have no knowledge of whether CBD oil would be effective for your problem. Again, if it was me personally, if the colloidal silver doesn’t work (I believe it will), then CBD oil would be my next choice – both topically and by mouth. I hope this helps, Let me know how it turns out for you.

      Reply

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