Medisch Spectrum Twente (MST) and Saxion Hogeschool in Enschede have recently helped to clarify the issue. A joint research study carried out over the last three years by these two institutions at the request of Health Company, a firm of sauna importers, showed that infrared saunas have a demonstrable beneficial effect on people with rheumatic disorders.
Seven students led by Dr Frits Oosterveld, lecturer at the academy for physiotherapy at Saxion Hogeschool, together with professor of rheumatology at MST Hans Rasker, were involved in the study. The study subjects were 17 sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis (chronic inflammation of the joints), 17 sufferers of ankylosing spondylitis (inflammatory arthritis affecting the spine and causing extreme stiffness), and a control group of 21 healthy subjects. Subjects were aged mainly between 35 to 50 years.
Course of treatment
During a four-week period the study subjects paid two visits a week to the infrared sauna. The effects on pain, stiffness and fatigue were measured prior to and during treatment, as well as a few days after treatment and after one month had elapsed. The results were surprising. "Patients with rheumatoid arthritis indicated that pain and stiffness were reduced by around 40% after just one 30-minute sauna session. Ankylosing spondylitis patients said they experienced 50% less pain and 60% less stiffness," according to Frits Oosterveld. He feels that the difference in situation before and after the sauna treatment is so great that a demonstrable effect is proven. This effect is not proven with respect to fatigue. Those questioned said that they experienced somewhat less fatigue, "but this was not sufficient enough to be called a proven effect". According to Dr Oosterveld, the mid-term and long-term effects of the sauna treatment are less effective. "Even just a few days after treatment the pain and stiffness returned, and after one month barely any effect could be seen." For the lecturer in Enschede there is only one logical conclusion: an infrared sauna provides good short-term relief from symptoms. "For a rheumatism patient to experience real benefit, they will need to make regular visits to the infrared sauna." This makes treatment in a hospital or clinic a less practical choice. "In part because having to go to hospital and the whole business of dressing and undressing places an extra burden on these patients. A more obvious choice for this type of patient would be to have a sauna at home which could be used for example at the beginning or end of the day." Dr Oosterveld thinks it could well be possible that at some point in the future the healthcare insurers will cover the purchase cost and running costs of an infrared sauna where this is medically indicated. But this is still a long way off. "First of all we will need to do a lot more research, including under other groups of patients with rheumatic disorders, such as fibromyalgia and arthritis sufferers, or those with other conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system." Even though it is still unclear whether the infrared therapy will also be of benefit to these patients, Dr Oosterveld is himself convinced that it has a general beneficial effect. The best evidence for this was supplied by the control group of healthy subjects who took part in the study. "Even people who have nothing wrong with them experience the benefits of a half-hour sauna session." Dr Oosterveld is not surprised by this; "Exposing your body to a temperature of 55 degrees centigrade activates your entire physiological mechanism to maintain your body temperature – the so-called core temperature. Your heart beats faster; blood vessels dilate, causing your blood pressure to fall; your skin becomes warmer and you start to perspire; in short, even though you are sitting still, your body is working as hard as if you were out jogging at a gentle speed. And when the session is finished you have that same feeling of vigour as you experience after a session of sport."
This level of exertion required by a sauna treatment is reason in itself for recommending the treatment to rheumatism sufferers, thinks Dr Oosterveld. "Their illness often prevents these people from actively taking part in sports, and this could provide an attractive alternative." When measuring heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and core temperature, there was no difference between the rheumatism patients and the healthy study subjects, meaning that there are no contra-indications regarding sauna use by rheumatism sufferers, according to Dr Oosterveld. "Yet it is not recommended that rheumatism sufferers use a sauna when their condition is in an acute phase, as any inflammation can be further aggravated by heat. The sauna is only effective during the inactive phase of the condition." Although a great deal of further study is required, Dr Oosterveld feels the study by MST and Saxion Hogeschool has served a good purpose, namely giving clarity to rheumatism patients about the effects of infrared heat on the body. The study findings were presented by Dr Oosterveld last week at an international congress of rheumatologists in America and will soon be published in the relevant professional journals.
From: Brabants Dagblad, 21 November 2001.