Is Sauna Good for Joint Pain? (How Heat Can Help With Recovery)

The sauna is a Finnish invention that has been used for centuries- known for utilizing heat to heal the body. It has many benefits for athletes and avid fitness enthusiasts; however, is the sauna good for joint pain?

Spending 15 minutes/session twice a week in an infrared sauna is the best practice for relieving chronic joint pain. Heat from the sauna helps increase circulation of WBCs and oxygen-rich blood to inflamed joints and remove toxic waste, like lactic acid, from our muscles. Avoid the steam room as humidity can increase harmful fluid retention.

Continue reading below to learn if the sauna is good for inflammation and joint pain, whether or not humidity is harmful or helpful, and how to go about using the sauna for relief!

Is the sauna good for inflammation and joint pain?

As we age, the cartilage that cushions your joints starts to wear thin- this is a direct result of the decreased production of synovial fluid. Can the sauna relieve some of the pain associated with this?

The heat from the sauna alleviates joint pain by:

  • Reducing inflammation 
  • Increasing circulation
  • Releasing endorphins
  • Relaxing your muscles
  • Removing metabolic waste

A 1988 study showed that over 50% of patients with rheumatic diseases found that sauna bathing lessens pain and improves joint mobility. Almost all of the male patients found the sauna to be helpful.

Additionally, a 2019 study that followed 37 participants, 20-years or older, discovered that using a traditional sauna 2x per day for 15 minutes has the ability to reduce back pain. This was measured using a verbal numerical rating scale (VNRS) and Oswestry disability index (ODI) scores. Overall, 70% of the study members reported positive results.

Benefit #1: Reducing Inflammation

The over 150 °F heat usually experienced in a sauna does a great job of reducing inflammation long-term.

The heat does this by stimulating blood flow and encouraging oxygen-rich plasma and WBC (white blood cells) to travel to the swollen site. This series of events speed up the healing process and reduces the amount of harmful fluid surrounding your joints, which causes inflammation. 

Benefit #2: Increasing Circulation

Increased circulation is what causes the reduction of inflammation mentioned above.

The sauna dilates your blood vessels and allows for more electrolytes, vitamins, and nutrients to travel where needed- in this case: your joints. This circulation will not only help to heal the cartilage around your joints but will also assist in muscle recovery and overall cellular health.

Benefit #3: Releasing Endorphins

Releasing endorphins creates a feeling of euphoria- what some like to call a “runner’s high.”

Endorphins are defined as polypeptides made by the pituitary gland and central nervous system. Any type of fear, pain, or stress can trigger their release. Your brain interprets heat from the sauna as a painful stimulus, which induces the production of endorphins to counteract that.

These happy chemicals can aid in reducing the amount of physical discomfort experienced in your joints.

Benefit #4: Relaxing Your Muscles

Tense muscles are a big, relatively unknown contributor to joint pain.

The sauna uses heat and steam to loosen tight muscles (connected to your bones by tendons) and ligaments (which connect bones to each other), thus alleviating residual pain in your joints. Additionally, it stimulates the release of heat-shock proteins which help to maintain cellular homeostasis. 

For example, if your hamstring muscles are tight, your body may be loading posterior force onto your knee. This can result in PFPS (patellofemoral pain syndrome) and wear on the articular cartilage behind your knee cap.

Why this is important: As you age, it becomes incredibly difficult (even impossible) to regrow cartilage where it is lost. The orthopedic community has invested time and research into cartilage restoration over the years, only to find that few techniques are effective and only on a case-by-case basis.

Use the sauna as an opportunity to stretch your muscles so that you don’t fall victim to lost cartilage and joint pain!

Benefit #5: Removing Metabolic Waste

The last but incredibly crucial benefit the sauna provides to those suffering from joint pain is the removal of metabolic waste.

When you sweat, your body flushes out toxins. The sauna speeds this process up by turning up the heat, increasing sweating, and releasing harmful buildup in your muscles like lactic acid.

In doing this, tension in the muscles is diminished, and less pressure is put on your joints.

Does heat make joint pain better or worse?

Heat has numerous benefits. Although, does heat from the sauna improve or worsen joint pain?

Generally speaking, this question is polarizing. However, according to a recent 2021 study, heat therapy significantly improves range of motion and chronic joint pain. Results are best when paired with some form of cryotherapy.

Where you can get into trouble is if you’re aiming to use heat therapy after an acute injury (for example, a fractured femur). Remember that heat expands. In this case, the sauna can increase inflammation and fluid retention in that particular area.

Even though heat can stimulate healing, it’s best to avoid it fresh off a traumatic event. Heat therapy is best suited for chronic pain, like osteoarthritis.

Do steam and humidity make joint pain better or worse?

Steam and humidity are what make a sauna so invigorating- but do they help with joint pain?

Humidity and moisture have been shown to make joint pain worse, depending on your condition. According to medical research from the University of Southampton, osteoarthritis conditions improved in warm, dry climates, while people with rheumatoid arthritis prefer colder weather for relief.

Those experiencing more joint pain in humid environments can usually attribute that to fluid retention.

Be sure to consult your physician first when seeking to use the sauna as therapy for your joint pain woes.

Should you use the sauna, infrared sauna, or steam room for joint pain?

According to the research above, not all saunas are created equal, especially when it comes to joint pain.

Because of the increased pain humidity can cause joints, only use traditional and infrared saunas for chronic medical issues. Avoid steam rooms altogether and steer clear of excessive heat after an acute injury. Infrared saunas work best due to their ability to penetrate 2 inches beneath the epidermis with lower temperatures.

Always consult your doctor before using saunas to treat a health-related condition, and ease into your new routine.

How to use the sauna for joint pain

If done so correctly and according to a regimented schedule, visiting the sauna can greatly improve joint pain.

Follow these steps to use a traditional sauna for joint pain:

  1. Visit the sauna 2 times/week.
  2. Spend a maximum of 30 minutes per session.
  3. Perform light muscle stretching while inside.
  4. Hydrate before and after your session.

Because traditional saunas have low levels of humidity, make sure to keep the moisture levels down. Incorporate cryotherapy into your routine 2 times/week (on the days you aren’t using the sauna) to further reduce inflammation and pain.

How to use the steam room for joint pain

Due to the impact of moisture on joint pain- should you use steam rooms to help with joint pain?

Stay away from steam rooms entirely if you’re suffering from joint pain. The added moisture can have a negative impact on fluid retention in your joint space. Additionally, wet environments can exacerbate symptoms of certain chronic pain diseases.

How to use the infrared sauna for joint pain

An infrared sauna is the best treatment for joint pain due to its method of operation.

Follow these steps to use an infrared sauna for joint pain:

  1. Visit the sauna 2 times/week.
  2. Spend around 15 minutes per session.
  3. Perform light muscle stretching while inside.
  4. Hydrate before and after your session.

Infrared saunas penetrate the layers of our skin to heat our bodies from the inside out. This means less time in the sauna for greater results!

To summarize what we’ve learned above- the sauna is great for joint pain when used properly! 

Always consult with a qualified medical professional before applying any form of treatment.