Can an infrared sauna play a role in your recovery from surgery? Infrared saunas are lauded among sauna users for their healing benefits and are associated with improved physical and mental health. So it makes sense to wonder if you can use an infrared sauna after surgery. Should you?
You shouldn’t use an infrared sauna right away after surgery, at least until your incision has healed and the swelling has gone away. Physicians advise against using heat on open wounds or anywhere you have swelling. Once the incision has healed and the inflammation has gone down, your doctor can give you the okay to return to the sauna.
Keep reading to learn more about the pros and cons of using an infrared sauna after surgery, how quickly you can (or should) return to your regular sauna routine, the benefits of infrared sauna for wound healing, and potential issues to watch out for along the way!
How is an infrared sauna beneficial for post-surgery recovery?
Infrared saunas work by heating you from the inside out, rather than heating the air around you. Most of the evidence-supported medical benefits of an infrared sauna are related to far infrared (FIR) light, which has wavelengths longer than three micrometers and can penetrate up to an inch and a half below the surface of your skin.
Unfortunately, there is not much published research on the effects of infrared light therapy in post-surgical healing in humans. Most of it is related to an FIR-induced increase in circulation, but some recent studies show that infrared light can stimulate the growth of new skin cells.
Once you have the all-clear from your physician, a slow reintroduction to infrared sauna sessions can provide a number of benefits, such as:
- Improved healing
- Increased circulation
- Muscle relaxation
Despite these benefits, it’s still not a good idea to apply heat to your surgical site for the first few days after surgery. Doing so can make the swelling and bleeding worse. Your doctor can give you individualized guidance regarding when it’s okay for you to switch from ice to heat.
In the last twenty years, numerous studies in mouse and rat models indicate that treating a wound with infrared radiation can speed up full-thickness skin healing.
Infrared saunas may help skin heal more quickly, and even reduce the appearance of scar tissue.
A 2016 study found evidence that far infrared light (FIR) may increase mitochondrial function, which plays an important role in cellular energy, signaling, cell growth, and cell death. In 2019, another study was published with more details about how FIR irradiation promotes skin healing on a cellular level. Specifically, FIR seems to increase epithelial cell migration.
Usually, your epithelial (skin) cells are polarized, each with a side that faces your body and a side that faces the outside world. Their job is to stick to each other and keep the inside of your body in, and the outside out. When you have a cut – or surgery – there is suddenly a gap between these cells, and the outside can touch areas that were supposed to be inside only.
FIR seems to help cells transition back and forth between epithelial (border) and mesenchymal (a kind of stem cell) states, which helps these cells move around and stitch together to close the wound.
A sauna session will warm the body, causing blood vessels to dilate as your body works to keep itself cool.
Circulating more blood means circulating all the things it carries; nutrients, oxygen, electrolytes, and cells that aid in waste removal.
You should also try to move around while in the sauna since using your muscles encourages blood flow.
After surgery, you are likely to be in significant pain. Some of this pain is made worse by muscle spasms or by you unintentionally tensing muscles around the surgical site in an attempt to relieve discomfort or pressure there.
Heat can seem almost magical in how it helps relax tense or spasming muscles. Couple this release with the commonly reported mental relaxation of using a sauna for self-care, and you may experience significant relief. A session in an infrared sauna can help you achieve this relaxation at a lower temperature.
Even weeks into your recovery, you may be overtaxing muscles in other areas of your body to compensate for the muscle weakness around the site of your procedure. Once you’re able to, treat yourself to a sauna session!
How soon after surgery can you use an infrared sauna?
After surgery, you should wait for the incision to close and the swelling to go down completely before using a sauna of any kind. You don’t want to be going to a sauna with an open wound.
It’s important to discuss your post-operative care and recovery plans with your doctor. Certain conditions or caveats may be specific to you and your individual case, leading your doctor to recommend either for or against using an infrared sauna in the days or weeks following your surgery.
The general consensus of the medical community is that you should wait until your incision is closed and you have no more swelling. How long it takes to meet these criteria will vary from patient to patient, but it’s usually some time after two or three days post-op.
It’s worth noting that many surgeons advise using a heating pad or hot towels to provide localized heat for pain relief starting two or three days after your surgery, regardless of whether the incision has completely closed. Logically, it would follow that an infrared blanket might be able to provide some of the same localized positive effects, though the research is sparse as of yet.
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Is sauna good for wounds?
Can a sauna session aid your wound recovery? Yes! As discussed, a sauna session can improve your circulation and help skin knit together over the wound more efficiently.
You should not attempt a sauna session with open wounds or swelling. Avoid steam rooms first and foremost, since a warm and moist area is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Furthermore, most medical practitioners recommend the use of cold on a recent or open wound.
Using heat on an open or swollen wound will increase circulation and blood flow to the wound. This contributes to bleeding and swelling, which can also compress smaller capillaries and keep them from delivering oxygen and other nutrients to the wound site.
By contrast, applying ice or another cold compress helps constrict blood vessels in the wound area, resulting in reduced inflammation and bleeding. This helps to control bleeding and swelling in the immediate aftermath of the injury or surgery.
Can I go to the sauna with an open wound?
You should not go to a sauna with an open wound for hygienic reasons. The best practice would be to wait until your incision has closed and the skin remains closed without the help of stitches or suturing adhesives.
You should avoid entering the sauna with an open wound because:
- You don’t want to introduce any germs from your surroundings into the wound, risking infection.
- It is discourteous to subject others using the sauna either to the visual or to the potentially oozing bodily fluids of your wound.
- Using heat on an open wound can increase bleeding and swelling.
With all of that said, a small study of around 80 people in Finland found that there was no significant difference in wound healing between postoperative patients who were advised to resume their normal sauna use after three days and patients who were prohibited from using a sauna until their stitches had been removed.
Provided you keep the incision clean and dry, a sauna session is unlikely to cause any negative impact on the healing of your wound.
Are saunas good for scars?
Similar to how an infrared sauna can help close a wound faster, it can also help improve scarring.
Increased circulation from a sauna session brings with it an increase in blood flow to the area of scar tissue. This can help break up existing scar tissue or help prevent it from forming in the first place!
Once you’ve got the okay from your doctor, enjoy the sauna!
Potential issues with infrared sauna after surgery
If you are new to infrared saunas, or saunas in general, your surgical recovery period is not the best time to start out building this new habit.
Your body is already compromised from the procedure you’ve undergone, so you’ll be even more susceptible to potential new-user problems like:
- Heat exhaustion
- Accidental burns
Long-time sauna users should be careful, too. During the first few weeks after surgery, your body has a lot going on trying to stitch itself back together. It may be easy to unintentionally overdo your infrared sauna sessions.
Always ask your doctor before using a sauna after surgery, and never try to use saunas in place of medical care and treatment.
Once you are cleared to return to the infrared sauna after your surgery, a nice relaxing session may be just the thing you need to (carefully) speed you on your way to recovery!
Your body will be expending a lot of energy during your recovery period just trying to put itself back together.
Just like you would reduce the length and strenuosity of a workout in the time following your surgery, you should reduce the time you spend in the sauna. You can gradually build back to your normal routine, but be aware that your body may not initially be able to handle the temperature or session duration it was used to before the surgery.
It is common to lose blood during surgery.
Depending on the severity of your surgery and how far you are into your recovery, your body may still be working on replenishing its blood stores. If you have less blood than usual trying to take up more space than it can in dilating blood vessels, the result is low blood pressure, which can be dangerous.
Using a steam room or high-humidity sauna will provide a warm and moist environment for bacteria to breed, increasing your risk of infection.
There is no evidence to suggest a dry or infrared sauna carries this risk, as long as you keep your incision clean and dry, and follow the specific instructions of your doctor.
Surgery often requires cutting through nerve-containing tissue to access the internal part of your body that needs the procedure. Often, that can lead to areas of temporary numbness in the days and weeks after the operation while your body puts itself back together.
As a result, you may not notice you are touching a surface hot enough to cause a burn until after the damage has been done.