Back pain can be devastating to your life and well-being, especially if chronic. This blog post investigates whether is sauna good for back pain.
In the first part of this blog post, I’ll cover the science of back pain. Next up, I show that several mechanisms exist through which saunas help lower back pain. Let’s start with the basics first though:
Acute Back Pain And Chronic Back Pain: Complicated Issue
Back pain is defined as pain that you have across your spine or pain that originates from that spine. Almost everyone has back pain once in a while: you overexert yourself while moving to another place and that muscle soreness feels a little bit too extreme. Or, you sleep on an extremely cheap mattress in a hotel room and the next morning your back simply doesn’t feel 100%.
Many people also have short incidences of back pain, such as temporary pain while lifting too heavy. None of these instances is a real problem. Most back pain, in fact, resolves itself quite quickly (1; 2; 3; 4; 5). Often, there’s an underlying mechanical reason for that back pain that passes with time and the pain goes away.
In fact, a whopping 80% of people have acute back pain somewhere in their lives. Having a painful back is no problem and is similar to feeling down once in a while - not feeling perfect is part of the human condition and nothing to worry about.
Also, acute back pain is easily treated by moving a lot, going through a physical therapist, taking some non-prescription painkillers, and so forth. In this case, nature ensures the condition cures itself.
Some back pain, however, becomes chronic. Officially, back pain becomes “chronic” if it persists for longer than 6 months. Only a very small percentage of acute back pain transitions into chronic back pain.
In such a case, there’s not necessarily an underlying reason but the pain nevertheless persists over longer periods of time. Increasingly, scientific evidence points in the direction of self-care for lower back problems - movement and exercise therapy comes to mind. Evidence is less strong for interventions that don’t put the initiative of the patient at the centre.
When medical professionals cannot pinpoint an underlying reason for the chronic back pain, in such instances, the pain becomes “non-specific”.
Chronic back pain is a huge problem for society though. Back pain in general costs society 166 billion GBP per year in medical costs alone. Also, chronic back pain is the most frequent form of chronic pain diagnosed. And, in turn, chronic pain is a health condition that affects more people than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined - and is often very much underappreciated by society at large (6; 7; 8).
In the UK and US, for instance, a fourth to a third of the population suffers from chronic pain at every single moment. Worldwide, the highest estimates are similar.
So what causes chronic pain and chronic back pain, if not an easily identifiable reason? Well, the conditions are multi-factorial - meaning that multiple variables affect the presence of the disease - but psychological and social well-being play a huge role.
You might wonder: “how are saunas going to help me deal with back pain?” In the next section, I’ll explore that option - it turns out infrared sauna help with many of the factors creating back pain in the first place.
Sauna And Back Pain: Exploring Several Mechanisms
If you’re interested in the sauna back pain link, then in this section I’ll explore several mechanisms through which saunas are good for back pain. I explore five of these mechanisms below:
1. Direct Evidence Shows Sauna Use Counters Pain
So in this section, I’ll look at several studies on sauna and back pain relationships.
First of all, a recent 2019 study shows that saunas positively affect lower back pain and reduced pain by 2 points on a scale from 1 to 10 (9). Overall disability scores also improved, meaning that the decreases in pain were paired with increases in functional ability, such as improvements in movement and better being able to perform at one’s job.
Another older study from 1992 shows that spending time inside a sauna positively affects pain originating from both the nervous system and because of rheumatoid arthritis (10).
Other studies show that simply applying heat to an area affected by chronic pain lowers overall pain perceptions (11). Specifically, pain behaviours decrease, while anger goes down as well - which is often the result of pain - and overall moods improve.
One more study investigated the effects of infrared light exposure on overall pain perceptions (12). The group of participants receiving the infrared light decreased their pain scores almost two times as much as the participants who didn’t receive the therapy. It only took six weeks for this extreme difference in outcome to show up.
A study summarising all the previous studies on spa treatments drew a similar conclusion: overall pain and disability go down big time with sauna exposure for lower back problems (13). Spa treatments, such as hot baths, are different from using an infrared sauna, of course. But, both therapies share heating the body as an intervention and the outcomes point to the same direction.
The moral of the story is? There’s strong preliminary evidence showing that saunas - such as infrared saunas - can be extremely helpful for countering chronic back pain.
Next up, let’s consider another angle of the sauna back pain relationship:
2. Counters Lack Of Exercise, Obesity, And A Sedentary Lifestyle
It turns out that if you’re overweight, have a sedentary lifestyle, or don’t exercise, your overall risk of having chronic back pain goes up (14; 15; 16; 17; 18; 19). Fortunately, spending time inside a sauna targets both these areas.
First of all, we’ve conducted our own weight and fat loss studies at Clearlight Infrared® Saunas. Three weekly sessions of infrared saunas over a period of four months lead to a decrease of 4% body fat in turn. If the sessions are planned in the afternoon or early evening, those fat loss gains can be achieved in merely two months.
The results of this outcome are clear: you’ll inevitably get leaning spending time in a sauna, either by burning calories or by removing toxins from your body - both of which are key factors in helping you lose fat. Your heart also works a lot harder inside a sauna. Therefore, saunas prevent you from becoming sedentary, an important back pain risk-factor.
3. Near-Infrared Light Exposure Further Counters Perceptions Of Pain
Guess what? There’s tons of evidence showing that “near-infrared” light or heat, specifically, can counter lower back pain. Normally, our saunas emit far infrared light or heat, but, with upgrades to a full-spectrum sauna or by adding red light therapy, you’ll get optimal exposure to near-infrared light as well.
Studies consistently show that near-infrared light inhibits pain sensations and counters the disability of chronic back pain (20; 21; 22; 23). Some of these studies don’t show improvements in disability scores or the ability to freely move the back (range of motion). For pain, however, the effects are extremely promising.
If you’re interested in adding near-infrared light to your sauna experience, then consider a full-spectrum sauna or add a Clearlight® Light Therapy Tower to the equation.
And, fortunately, there’s more:
4. Spending Time In A Sauna Relaxes You And Makes You Feel Better
Many people with back pain - especially the chronic version - experience chronic stress and depression. Sure, you might not attain the threshold of a full-blown “clinical depression” but feeling worse than you should under normal circumstances still contributes to your chances of getting chronic back pain (24; 25; 26; 27).
Do you have financial worries? In that case, you’ve got a higher risk of chronic back pain. Do you have a stressful job where you barely have any control over the outcome? Once again, you’ve got a higher risk of back pain. People with chronic back pain simply report higher overall stress levels and extreme stress much more frequently.
So how can a sauna help?
Simple: saunas are the ultimate way to relax. Don’t believe me, relaxation is the most frequent reason many people visit a sauna in the first place (28).
Also, saunas help you relax through several physiological mechanisms. For instance, spending time inside an infrared sauna helps your body create endorphins - natural opioid-natured painkillers - and helps reduce the number of stress hormones such as “cortisol” and “adrenaline” over time (29; 30)
Then, you’ll increase what is called “heart rate variability” (HRV) - the interval between heartbeats. Higher HRV signifies better overall health and relaxation (31; 32; 33). As back pain is tightly interrelated with having a poorer mood, saunas are an excellent help to counter one of the most important back pain symptoms and causes.
5. Saunas Support Socialising Which Counters Pain
This one is really simple and I’ll keep it short:
Saunas are great to enjoy among friends. And, if you’ve got a sauna at home, it’s really simple to invite some friends over for sauna sessions. Fortunately, science also shows that spending time together with friends helps you deal with (chronic) back pain. So make saunas a social event that raises your commitment to enjoy many sessions!
The more, the merrier…
Next up, let’s conclude:
Conclusion: Saunas Are A Great Tool In The Back-Pain Management Toolbox
So if you wonder “is sauna good for lower back pain”, the answer is a resounding “yes”. As you’ve hopefully become aware in this blog post, many physiological mechanisms exist by which saunas lower back pain.
However, I do want to emphasise that infrared saunas are no magic bullet. Many other lifestyle choices you make, such as whether you exercise or not, whether you move a lot, your posture at work (such as at a desk) and others have huge influences on back pain as well.
So, whatever you do, adopt a healthy lifestyle. The sauna is just a tool in the toolbox for that healthy lifestyle - albeit an important one.