The fitness industry is well known for staying on top of the latest techniques and technology. Millions of people, fueled by the desire for optimum performance and health, collectively work toward finding the newest and best means to feel better, look better, and perform at their best.
In the world of athletics and fitness, many groundbreaking trends and new discoveries have a grassroots origin. Quite often, a scientifically-sound idea or therapy will be found within the pages of medical journals and tested by the masses long before it becomes a true consumer product. (In fact, the widespread public attention toward a new therapy is sometimes what drives continuing research.)
Through this process of testing, research, anecdotal use, feedback, and optimization, red light therapy has become a popular tool for fitness enthusiasts, athletes, trainers, and physical therapists.
The Growth of Red Light Therapy
When red light and near infrared light treatments first began to show promise in its ability to aid healing and alleviating pain, it was an expensive and complicated treatment that was only available to researchers and a handful of practicing doctors. Public interest in the efficacy of this exciting new modality pushed demand, and so did the availability of medical-grade devices and treatment centers.
As the adoption of the method grew, so did the amount of research behind it and the associated body of evidence around its benefits. Perhaps most importantly, a growing mountain of studies showed almost unilaterally that red light therapy had no serious or lasting side effects. With doubt around the safety of red light/NIR therapy removed, the modality enjoyed another growth spurt.
The consumer market took notice of both the safety and reported benefits of red light therapy. Consumers wanted affordable ways to use red light devices without visiting spas or clinics. Manufacturers like TheraBulb came onto the scene to help people find safe, tested, and effective red light therapy bulbs for just that purpose.
Red Light and NIR Hit the Fitness World
At this point in the history of red light therapy, it had been tested on numerous health issues from broken bones to Alzheimer’s disease. While the method was more effective in alleviating some symptoms than others, red light showed immense promise in helping in reducing inflammation, muscle pain, and cellular energy production. Naturally, these benefits are of great interest to the fitness world, so the use of red light therapy among athletes and trainers began to spike.
And the research continued.
To date, there have been hundreds of clinical trials indicating that red light therapy helps enhance physical performance at a cellular level. In a more directly tangible way, red light therapy has been shown to improve muscle recovery after a strenuous workout, help with soreness, and even speed healing after an injury. Much of this can be attributed to red light therapy’s effectiveness against inflammation.
It’s quite normal to experience inflammation after a workout, even if you’re not injured or strained. Exercise and training -- especially aggressive training -- usually involves breaking down muscle, pushing endurance, and taking the body to a point of exhaustion. These effects cause the body’s natural recovery and healing processes to kick in. Just as red light therapy helps with chronic inflammation, it can be beneficial for the acute inflammation that comes with working out. Keeping even minor inflammation in check helps the body to recover more quickly, and often with less accompanying pain.
What is Red Light Therapy, Exactly?
We’d better take a step back and address the elephant in the room for those who are just discovering red light therapy. We don’t want to leave anyone out by leaving this one unanswered:
What is Red Light Therapy?
You’ll want to know a few details before continuing to learn about the benefits of this modality, after all.
In short, red light therapy and NIR therapy are methods of photobiomodulation (PBM), a non-invasive treatment method that delivers specific wavelengths of red and/or near infrared (NIR) light directly to the surface of the body. Because it is an external therapy, it is often used to treat the skin directly. But NIR and red light have enough penetrating power to reach into the tissue beneath the skin, making it viable for application to muscles and joints.
Why Would someone Want to Direct Red Light Into Their Skin?
It actually makes perfect sense. Red and infrared light are abundant in the natural world. Our bodies are not only used to bombardment of these wavelengths -- they need it. The modern, largely indoor, lifestyles we enjoy actually deprive most people in developed nations of the natural light they need to drive cellular function. If cells are not functioning at their best, you can’t expect the body they make up to perform very well, either!
Apart from the cellular-level benefits of NIR and red light, the penetrating heat of the light has been shown to improve circulation at the therapy site. This is a key reason why red light therapy can help with inflammation and healing, as optimal blood flow supports the body’s natural recovery processes.
Now that we’ve taken a quick look at what red light therapy is and how it works, let’s explore a few of the most common fitness-related uses in detail.
Red Light Therapy and Muscle Recovery
Many athletes and trainers turn to red light therapy after a workout. Intense training tends to cause inflammation, joint pain, and muscle soreness. As we all know, it’s difficult (and unwise) to push further along in training until you’ve recovered from these effects. With that in mind, it’s beneficial to speed along that healthy recovery process as much as possible.
By promoting better circulation and muscle healing after an intense workout, red light therapy can offer welcome pain relief and faster recovery. This means less aching, reduced downtime and more productive training sessions.
Red Light and Optimal Performance
Red light therapy is also widely used to enhance total-body wellness and general performance. Rather than just using red light to speed recovery, the modality can be used to improve cellular function, reduce oxidative stress, and prime muscles for strenuous workouts so they’re less likely to suffer injury.
Many of these benefits come back to the effects of photobiomodulation at a cellular level. Red light therapy has been shown to increase ATP production, the “fuel” that drives cellular function. With stable and optimized ATP production, the body can be primed for maximum output as well as rapid recovery.
Red Light Therapy for Healing Sports Injuries
Sports-related injuries are common among athletes, and nothing dampens the competitive spirit like downtime from training injuries. High-intensity contact sports carry obvious risks of course, but even sports like running, cycling, and swimming put strain on the body that can result in muscle injury, joint pain, nerve damage, or acute injuries.
These are all effects that red light therapy has been evaluated against -- and shown some form of positive benefit in studies.
We’ve already talked about red light therapy and recovery, but what about its usefulness in terms of rehabilitation from an injury? Sports medicine practitioners use two factors when assessing an athlete’s injury and their ability to return to the sport: inflammation and pain. Inflammation is a key indicator of healing progress, and the athlete’s pain level is an obvious barrier to reentry.
Red light therapy works to improve the inflammation response by stimulating ATP production at a cellular level and boosting the production and flow of anti-inflammatories. Because red light has been shown to promote collagen production, it can help with repairing connective tissue and torn muscles.
The penetrating heat of red/NIR light therapy also works to relieve pain, as well as improving circulation at the treatment site. By minimizing pain, reducing spasms, and improving blood flow, the athlete may be able to return to their normal level of activity more quickly and more comfortably.
What Sport Injuries Can Be Treated with Red Light Therapy?
Because red light therapy is accessible, affordable, and deemed safe through numerous studies, it can be used liberally without much concern. As long as basic safety guidelines are observed, red light can be directed toward nearly any injury or part of the body (although you should check with a medical professional if you’re not sure about a particular application).
Let’s take a look at a few specific injuries that are commonly treated with red light therapy:
- Running: Stress fractures in the feet, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and runner’s knee.
- Cycling: Neck and lower back strains, muscle fatigue, and knee/joint pain.
- Swimming: Lower back and neck pain, torn connective tissue, rotator cuff injuries, tendonitis, shoulder pain, and shoulder impingement syndrome.
- Softball/Baseball: Muscle strains and sprains, lower back sprains, knee injuries, and rotator cuff tears.
- Weight Training: Back strains and back pain, knee injuries, general soreness, and shoulder impingement.
- Tennis: Tennis elbow, back pain, wrist strains, rotator cuff injury, knee injuries, and tennis elbow.
If you experience any of the above, it’s likely that you will find some relief by using red light therapy. Safe and easy-to-use home options like TheraBulb make it possible to experience these benefits without costly subscriptions or trips to a clinic.
Conclusion: Red Light Therapy Supports Recovery and Healing
It’s uncommon for athletes to go their entire career without incurring some form of injury. Even amateur athletes run into sprains, strains, or overtraining issues from time to time. When these situations occur, inflammation and pain are par for the course. These are natural responses to injury, but they can severely impede athletic performance and return to activity. Healthy, natural light is key for recovery, and can typically bolster or boost the body’s natural healing response. Because red light therapy enhances cellular energy production, improves blood flow to damaged tissues, and supports natural inflammation response, red light therapy has become a go-to modality in the fitness world.