This article examines the clinical benefits of heat therapy and the growing evidence supporting the non-thermal effects and benefits of new carbon fabric FAR infrared (FIR) therapy to relieve joint pain, including back pain, and treat sports injuries.
Use of heat as part of physical therapy treatment is not common because heating product applications have tended to be cumbersome, time-consuming to apply and carry the risk of causing burns.
Whether boiling gel packs straight from a hydrocollator or a wheat bag from the microwave, the impracticality of heat has meant that in practical terms, it is rarely used.
Thermal therapy is largely ignored by western mainstream manual therapy professions and there is very little awareness of the clinical application and effects of FAR infrared for pain relief and as an aid to healing.
Heat, notably moist heat, is used primarily to provide comfort and ease chronic pain and stiffness. Evidence shows that heat can increase the extensibility of soft tissues and thus aid mobility. FAR infrared is a resonant energy and was traditionally applied for a variety of conditions using an infrared lamp.
The lamps went out of vogue because of the awkward application, the risk of skin drying from the visible light component of some of the bulbs and the potential risk of eye damage. A new generation of carbon fabric infrared elements such as Thermedic is rapidly emerging which deliver heat quickly and conveniently from a safe FAR infrared heat source which can be moulded to the joint or easily applied to the painful area.
The new carbon fabric infrared elements, notably Thermedic, are used predominantly in the markets where they are made, namely Asia but are rapidly emerging in the UK and North America.
Scientific research to understand the mechanisms which drive observed clinical outcomes of FAR infrared therapy, for a variety of conditions, is thus centered in China and Taiwan. Evidence-Base The evidence base for heat therapy and FIR therapy is diverse and compelling.
There is significant growth in scientific interest in the non-thermal effects of FIR therapy itself, whilst the convenience of the carbon fabric heat element enables clinicians interested in the benefits of thermal therapy, to have a tool which they can practicably use to help patients.
Here is an example of a typical study relating to back pain:
FAR Infrared treatment leads to a 57% decrease in pain for patients with 6 year chronic low back pain. Forty patients with chronic low back pain of over six years' duration. Mean NRS scores in the FIR treatment group fell from 6.9 of 10 to 3 of 10 at the end of the study. The mean NRS in the placebo group fell from 7.4 of 10 to 6 of 10. The FIR therapy unit used was demonstrated to be effective in reducing chronic low back pain and no adverse effects were observed. Gale GD, Rothbart PJ, Li Y. Infrared therapy for chronic low back pain: a randomized, controlled trial. Pain Research and Management 2006,11(3):193-196
FAR infrared provides a safe, non-invasive, cost-effective therapeutic modality which is easy to administer. Today we are witnessing and hearing countless anecdotal public and clinical examples of how patients with a variety of chronic conditions including back pain and arthrits have experienced pain relief over-and above what they have been able to receive from standard moist heat, cold therapy, electrotherapy or indeed pharmacological treatments.
That is not evidenced-based, however such a wealth of comments and observations begs many profound questions to clearly understand and explain the reported outcomes. There is no doubt that the new FAR infrared technology will have wide reaching accepted applications in a variety of fields as awareness and scientific research into the benefits of FAR infrared expands.
One might go so far as to imagine the time when doctors will prescribe FAR infrared as a therapeutic modality in the place of medication, for certain conditions.
Stephen Small is Director of Steadfast Clinics Ltd, a UK medical company specialising in non-invasive treatments for pain, including IDD Therapy Spinal Decompression for herniated discs and sciatica and FAR infrared therapy.