Ditch the Ice and Get the Light for Sports Recovery: Why Red Light Therapy is Replacing Bags of Ice

Think about it — what is the first thing you reach for when you experience a minor sports-related injury? An ice pack, of course. 

Ice has been the default solution to dull pain and reduces inflammation for athletes, but a growing body of scientific evidence is now saying "Stop!" Science is also pointing towards red light therapy being a safer and more effective alternative.

Professional sports and athletics teams under the care of world-class sports physiologists rely on ice. Kids in little league games count on ice packs to relieve pain from sudden injuries. They are a common sight in gyms as well, but is it time we said goodbye to ice packs?

Ice and Recovery: Why It is a Staple

To be sure, ice is a wonderful initial treatment for all kinds of sports injuries ranging from soreness to serious injuries such as fractures and dislocation. Ice lowers the temperature in the area and slows circulation, inhibits inflammation, dulls pain, and reduces swelling. 

Acute soft tissue injuries typically exhibit symptoms such as redness, heat, swelling, and pain, which is why icing the injured area works so well. Even muscle soreness after a particularly intense session is alleviated since icing slows down inflammation and reduces pain.

The resultant symptoms of injury - pain, swelling, and redness - are part of the body's natural response to injury. The body increases blood supply to the area and heightens its lymphatic drainage system, both of which lead to swelling, warmth, and redness. The swelling increases pressure on the injured tissue and nerves, thus the pain. 

After a few days, the body's immune functions and the increased blood supply will flush out toxins and inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. Applying ice as an initial treatment helps to minimize all these four symptoms, but is ice really the best solution?

Why Ice isn't Always the Best Option

The key term here is "initial treatment." Icing may be fantastic in the short term, but scientific evidence shows that it could actually be counterproductive in the long run. A study on the effect of local cooling on performance and recovery showed that applying ice actually slows down the time to recovery.

A more recent animal study conducted in Japan showed that repeated icing after strenuous exercise damaged the leg muscles of the mice which participated in the study. In those muscles which were not iced, the natural inflammatory response kicked in within hours and started clearing damaged tissue. 

Where the non-chilled muscles healed in two weeks, the chilled ones were still showing signs of damage after two weeks due to delayed recovery. 

Another alternative treatment for sports-related injuries is heat treatment. However, heat should never be used immediately after an injury happens, but 24-48 hours after. Heat dilates blood vessels and worsens all the symptoms of inflammation. 

Instead, applying ice packs and then heat after a day or two allows the injured area to speed up the delayed inflammatory response. By then, the area has already swollen and the pain kicked in, and the objective is to hasten recovery as much as possible. Other treatments involving medication or compression might also be recommended, but could there be a better option?

How Red Light Therapy Can Help With Recovery

Light therapy is a highly underappreciated solution to sports injuries. It has been shown to have many amazing benefits including reducing inflammation, increasing the speed of recovery, and relieving pain, which would make red light therapy the ideal treatment for sports injuries. 

How Red Light Therapy Helps With Inflammation

The body's natural inflammatory response is the cause of the discomfort and pain experienced after injuries. This reaction should be controlled rather than inhibited, which is exactly what RLT does. 

A study on the inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation (another name for light therapy, of which RLT is a big part) showed that exposure to red and near-infrared light is able to "regulate anti-oxidant defenses and reduce oxidative stress." The result is an "overall reduction in inflammation."

In short, RLT activates the body's inflammatory response but has a double effect in that it regulates the level of reactive oxygen species (ROS). It lowers inflammation when it is too high and increases it if it is too low. 

Red Light Therapy and Pain Management

Another important feature of red light therapy is its ability to manage chronic pain. Due to the repetitive nature of many sports activities, repetitive injuries are common and can lead to a significant decrease in performance. 

Clinical investigations have shown that red light therapy does produce an analgesic (painkilling) effect and reverses neuropathic pain. Blue and green light is mostly associated with this effect, but infrared light is more effective as it can penetrate deeper into the body to treat nerve pain within deep tissue. 

Scientists haven't clearly understood how this works, but it is clear that skin and muscle cells absorb energy from red light which then causes marked effects in the activity of these cells.

Red Light Therapy and Recovery

Red light therapy significantly increases the rate of cell regeneration, and thus improves recovery. This is directly linked to the increased production of energy and heightened cell function associated with red light therapy. 

Invest in Red Light Therapy for Sports Recovery 

Together with reduced inflammation and pain, faster recovery adds to the three-fold effect that red light therapy has on injured tissue. In fact, NASA was one of the first organizations to experiment with the healing properties of photobiomodulation, and studies are ongoing to understand how it works. 

The science of recovery improvement is closely tied to the body's natural inflammatory response. Where ice and heat throw this reaction out of control, red light therapy actually improves and regulates it to help enhance recovery. 

RLT also helps to reduce pain, hasten wound repair, and improves blood circulation to bring down swelling faster. However, using RLT requires that you have regular sessions to gain maximum benefits. Ideally, these should be daily sessions lasting 10-12 minutes each for a maximum of 3 sessions or as recommended by your physiologist.

The only way to ensure this much RLT treatment is to have your own red light kit at home. At My RLT, we bring you our selection of handheld and full-body RLT devices designed to suit every need. Visit our collection to find which one works for you not only to help you recover from sports-related injuries but to prevent them in the first place. Also, feel free to contact us.