One of the newest trends in beauty, health, and relaxation is the infrared sauna. Unlike its counterpart, the steam sauna, its dry heat uses infrared lights to heat you from the inside.
Of interest to myself and others with chronic pain is their stated ability to reduce inflammation and pain. Other benefits mentioned with infrared saunas are slowing skin aging, releasing toxins through sweat, and improving symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
What if your chronic illness comes with a sensitivity to heat and or sun? Will you still benefit from an infrared sauna session?
Come along with me as I explore infrared sauna, its ability to help with chronic pain, and if it is contraindicated for heat and/or sun sensitivity.
What Are Infrared Saunas
The non-scientific very basics
Simply put, they use infrared lights instead of steam. This creates heat in the air as well as warming your core. Because the air is less ‘thick’ with heat and steam, you can stay in longer.
The infrared light also breaks your skin barrier, where steam-created heat stops. The theory (or perhaps it’s scientific fact?) is that you reap more benefits from this type of heat because it releases deeper toxins and can work on systems that are not touched by heat that stops at your skin.
According to one manufacturer of these saunas, they provide a number of benefits including detoxification, anti-aging, weight loss, relaxation, cardiovascular, and pain relief.
Are all infrared saunas the same?
No, infrared saunas vary depending on the type of infrared they use.
There are 3 types of light used in infrared saunas: near, mid, and far. They each have different wave-lengths allowing them to reach different depths of your body.
Each type of light penetrates your body to different levels and provides different benefits. Near infrared (NIR) is the most shallow and primarily benefits your skin. Mid infrared (MID) can penetrate slightly further and reduces inflammation and encourages cell regeneration (healing). Far infrared (FID) goes the deepest into your core and encourages the release of toxins.
All that being said, different models and manufacturers of infrared saunas use different kinds of lights. Additionally, some have settings where you can turn on or off different lights depending on your intended purpose.
What does an infrared sauna look like?
The saunas are self-contained units that are situated in a room designed to hold it. Although models are different in their design, most look very similar to a steam sauna.
There will be a door to enter the sauna, usually glass, and a bench to sit on. They are probably fitted with bamboo or other types of wood interiors.
Shapes of the saunas are different depending on the brand and model, but most resemble and small square room.
The interior of the sauna I used was approximately 5 ft wide and 7 ft high. It did not trigger any feelings of claustrophobia.
What is involved in an infrared sauna session?
Each session is different depending on the user and their needs.
Newer users will want to start short and work their way up to longer sessions. For example, jumping straight into a 45-minute session is probably a mistake for someone who has never done it before.
Because they are usually in a spa setting, you may find the lights are dim and there is music or nature sounds playing.
You can be dressed or undressed to your comfort level. The saunas are located in rooms with locks (or should be, in any reputable establishment) and are private.
The saunas are very warm inside and most have a method of venting some heat if the user gets too warm. If all else fails, they can open the door at any time.
One intended result of the sauna is a lot of sweat. Regardless of clothing level, sweat will occur because heat is penetrating beyond the skin.
After the session, sweat will continue as the core temperature returns to normal.
What about heat and sun sensitivity?
I will cover this a little more in the description of my experience below.
If sun sensitivity is a problem for you, you shouldn’t have an issue with the infrared sauna. They do not emit UV light and do not mimic the sun in any way that should cause an issue. Even baby incubators often use infrared lights.
This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. If you have sun or light sensitivity, have a discussion with your physician before you decide to try this particular type of therapy.
If your issue is heat, I would think very carefully about using the infrared sauna. They get warm inside. Very warm. Imagine sun bathing in Pheonix on a hot day.
Depending on the setting, temperatures in the sauna can safely be set between 110 and 140 degrees.
If heat is an issue for your and you’re still on the fence, continue reading to hear about my experience.
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The Sauna Experience
Setting an appointment
If you read my post about massage and fibromyalgia, you’ve already learned a little about my preferred spa.
Thanks to my parents, who know me well, I had a gift certificate to spend and a “Winter Wellness” package I wanted to book. Part of that package was a 45 minute infrared sauna session.
Before making the appointment, I researched infrared saunas and the particular sauna they use.
Their Sunlighten mPulse was very highly reviewed. It appears to be a top-of-the-line model that uses all three types of infrared light.
After I was comfortable with moving forward, I booked an appointment for a day I knew I had time, both before and after.
Special considerations I kept in mind:
- I needed to drink a sufficient amount of water before the sauna,
- I shouldn’t eat for a minimum of an hour before the sauna,
- I was going to continue to sweat for up to an hour after the sauna,
- If my heat sensitivity acted up, I was going to be down for at least a day. Maybe two.
Day of the sauna
Thanks to a quick google search (and a call to the spa) I knew that I could wear whatever I wanted into the sauna.
I decided to wear loose breathable clothes because nothing is worse than putting on tight yoga pants when you’re sweating up a storm.
I wore appropriate clothing to the session and also took an extra pair of underwear, because I was going to evaluate the undies situation once I was in the room.
I didn’t have any intention of putting my naked behind on a bench other people had done the same on!!
In the end, I felt comfortable not wearing them because the sauna bench was covered in a clean towel.
I also showered and didn’t eat or drink anything I didn’t want to smell if I was sweating it out. Sorry for that mental picture.
Although I knew the spa has shower facilities, I was going straight home after the session so I didn’t bother with extra clothes, supplies, etc.
I did, however, take my trusty water bottle with me. Honestly, I take it with me everywhere. I’ve even made it all the way into restaurants with it before!
When I was taken to the sauna room, I was surprised by how comfortable and secure it felt. To be fair, there was no reason to be surprised. I’ve been going to this spa for years and I have never felt uncomfortable.
However, if you are going to a new spa, I would 100% recommend checking it out before you book your appointment. There is no reason to waste money on an experience that is going to cause anxiety because you’re worried about the setting.
I was given a quick rundown of the sauna and the room.
The bench and floor were covered in clean towels and I was advised I could sit any where and any way I wanted. There was also a fresh towel for wiping away sweat.
The built-in music could be changed however I wanted. There were blue LED lights inside the sauna itself and the lights in the room could be all the way on or dimmed. He also showed me the vent in the top of the sauna in case I got too hot.
I was advised to leave my water bottle and the “frozen eucalyptus burrito” outside of the sauna so they did not get warm.
By the way, the frozen eucalyptus burrito (which I still giggle about) felt and smelled amazing after the sauna. In case you’re wondering, it was a portion of eucalyptus wrapped in a hand towel and frozen.
The attendant explained that the door locked from the inside and that the lights would blink when the time was up.
When he left, I undressed, entered the sauna, and got comfortable.
The bench was slightly too short to lay all the way out. I sat up for a few minutes but ended up laying down with my knees bent.
The light, heat, and sounds were very relaxing. I zoned out for a while and enjoyed.
Sweating began after about 3 minutes and continued throughout. My hair was pretty soaked by the end!
When the lights started blinking, I opened the door, grabbed a huge drink of water, and used the heck out of the frozen eucalyptus burrito.
Lessons learned after my first infrared sauna session
- After about 30 minutes, I started to become uncomfortable but I didn’t realize it at the time. In hindsight, I should have cut the session off at this point.
- I should have started a timer on my phone so I could see how long into the session I had gone. Seeing the timer would have been hugely helpful because I started to feel over-warm and claustrophobic as the session reached the end.
- A bag to put my stuff in would have been nice. I didn’t put on my jacket/scarf after the sauna and it was annoying carrying it while trying to pay.
- I thought I had drank enough water. I hadn’t!
Heat sensitivity and infrared sauna – The Result
This is where my experience went wrong.
I have heat and sun sensitivity. They cause horrible migraines and the sun causes a really obnoxious rash on my face. I also get extremely tired, nauseous, and have an overall Fibromyalgia and CFS flare.
Knowing all this, I still thought it might be different because of the infrared lights.
I was right when it came to the rash. I’m still rash free after 24 hours.
However, I have yet to get rid of the migraine, nausea, and health crash.
I rarely get migraines now thanks to a change in my diet, so I know the sauna was the cause. It started almost immediately after I finished my session and has not been helped by medicine.
Because of the migraine and my obvious symptoms of heat intolerance, I would have to say this part of my infrared sauna experience was a failure.
Pain relief from infrared sauna – The Result
I’m 24 hours hours out and honestly, pretty pain free.
That is particularly surprising given that I should be in a lot of pain because of the heat issue.
Even muscles that I tweaked in the last few weeks – which caused a major back issue a few days ago – are feeling better.
Overall, I would say my pain level is improved. However, I can’t possibly give this two thumbs up because…migraine.
Other thoughts on infrared sauna
My body feels good-ish, which is better than my usual.
I enjoyed the relaxing and having no where I needed to be.
But that migraine was no fun. And I have a feeling my overall energy level will be an issue for at least a week.
Another random though related to the sauna is I have terrible BO today. Which is NOT an issue I usually suffer from. I’m assuming it has to do with any toxins that may have been released during the session.
I believe this would have been a pretty great experience if I didn’t have a heat sensitivity.
But I also think that if you have health and chronic illness issues, you should definitely talk to your doctor first!
In doing my research, I happened across this site warning of contraindications of infrared saunas. There is some very pertinent information there! I had already made up my mind to try this for research purposes, but if I hadn’t it would have warned me away because of my heat issues.
If this is a safe method of therapy for you, I would recommend you give a short session a shot!
Good luck and let me know about your infrared sauna experience in the comments below!
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