Patients and friends frequently ask me about the use of Infrared light for healing. Infrared heating pads have become very popular, with a good friend of mine recently purchasing one and quickly sharing with me the benefits on the chronic pain he feels at times in his ankle. After suggesting I bring these heating pads into Ocyon to possibly augment our Stem Cell and PRP treatments, I thought I’d do some research. Here’s what I found.
First off, it’s amazing how much research has already gone into light therapy on a scientific level. Light therapy has been analyzed for years with the research getting so specific at the current day, that scientists are actually beginning to learn what specific wavelengths and intensity of those wavelengths can affect gene expression. Okay, so that’s pretty complex so let me introduce the idea in a bit of an easier way to understand.
Every cell has DNA. DNA is made of a vast array of genes that code for proteins that basically form our bodies. DNA can be activated in a number of ways. Temperature changes can activate genes, working out can activate genes, and yes believe it or not light can activate genes. I guess this idea shouldn’t be too hard to fathom, we’ve all seen our skin change colors when exposed to a lot of sunlight. Something in the skin cells changed, melanin was told to be produced, genes were expressed and either you experienced a really painful sunburn or a pretty nice tan.
You see cells have photoreceptors, capable of being triggered by light. Think about it from an evolutionary standpoint, or creationism, whatever you prefer…but at some point, your ancestors were working hard under the Sun. Actually, the heat you feel from the Sun is light. Sunlight is made up of rays of light from Ultraviolet to Visible light to Infrared to Radio waves. On a logical level, this heat causes particles within your body to move faster (like blood flow), increasing the delivery of nutrients to areas and reducing inflammation. Hence Grandma’s recommendation to get out the good ole heating pad when you had an injury. Grandma was smart, very smart.
So, here’s where the purpose of infrared heating pads comes to light (pun intended). You see some physicists would argue that heat cannot exist without light of some wavelength. Heat is the increased movement of molecules, and as molecules move from energy state to higher energy states thereby becoming hotter, they must emit radiation…and radiation is some form of light. So, Grandma’s heating pad worked by transferring light into your body and promoting healing.
The real question then is, do infrared heating pads heal on another level than ordinary heating pads given that they both produce heat, although through the emission of different wavelengths of radiation or light? Being well versed in the scientific method, and an educationally programmed skeptic, the answer surprised me.
Off to PubMed I went, the world’s largest database of scientific studies. Did my due diligence and found a very interesting paper that shed some light (had to do it), on the situation. For the analytical fact checkers reading this…here’s the first of the two articles that helped me elucidate the subject:
Infrared therapy for chronic low back pain: A randomized, controlled trial
I looked at this article first because I myself suffer from back pain and wanted to see if I should get an IR heating pad. The article is good, and this graph in it certainly supports the use of IR heating pad.
I mean look at it, group 0 the IR heating pad group dropped the pain scores from 7 to 3 over 7 weeks while the placebo unit did nothing. Problem here is, and the paper did honestly discuss this at the end, was the IR device created heat, while the placebo device didn’t. Which brings us back to grandmas heating pad and anything that heats up tissues causing healing cause its bringing more blood and nutrients to the area.
Ok so I went a bit further and found this one which actually did help to illuminate (it’s late and I’m writing so keeping myself entertained with some light humor), the issue.
Here’s the second reference:
“Visible red and infrared light alters gene expression in human marrow stromal fibroblast cells
So, what did this article say? Well it said a lot, much more than would allow me to give my medical direction that everyone should rush out and buy an infrared heating pad, although I’m open to the discussion. You see, it’s a lot more complicated than simply infrared light being the best wavelength of light on the spectrum to promote healing. Actually, it’s not only the wavelength of light but also the density of light waves of power of light waves that affect healing.
Quickly glance back to the first part of this blog where I discussed genes being turned on and off. Well, it turns out genes do get turned on and off by infrared light, as well as many other wavelengths of light. The real trick is knowing what genes you are trying to activate and for what cause. For instance, TGF-B protein gene can be activated to stimulate the production of this molecule that is well known to induce cartilage healing with Visible Red light, not infrared light. Other common pathways like AKT-1 which plays a key role in nerve healing is activated by infrared light. The RANKL pathway, which affects bone growth and remodeling was also induced by infrared light, but it depended on the dose of infrared light, along with another common pathway MMP10 that was also affected by infrared but at yet a different dose.
Wow, confusing right. Yes, it’s confusing because we humans haven’t quite gotten this far in Stem Cell therapy. We’re coming close, but the exact dose doesn’t seem to be written as far as I’ve found yet, although it could very well be out there.
For the purpose of this blog, IR light and all forms of light can affect gene expression and accelerate healing. Question is what exactly are you trying to heal, bone? Cartilage? Nerves?
The answer is yes, IR pads do look like they can affect healing beyond simply warming the tissue due to the effect on specific photoreceptors for these wavelengths that activate gene pathways that can accelerate certain types of healing depending on whether you are trying to heal a non-union fracture with stem cells or arthritis of cartilage a joint, don’t go rushing out to buy that infrared pad until you know what density to put it at and whether or not a device with a different wavelength may be better situated for your specific injury, but if you want to add a IR pad to your tool belt of get out of back pain mode, go ahead. I think I will, and I’ll keep reading to see exactly how to apply this to my own patients outside the blinder on mentality of yes infrared is great for everything.