Can red and Infrared therapy help to improve muscle growth and recovery?
Regardless of whether people are gym-junkies, elite athletes, weekend warriors, a person wanting to maintain muscle mass or just experiencing incidental exercise in their normal day, there is going to come a time when the muscles are going to need support, pain relief or help to repair. Something all people have experienced at one time or another is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, known as DOMS or even ‘the dreaded DOMS’. It could happen after that new healthy program, the days after moving to a new house, squatting on the floor for too long playing with the grandchild or from pushing that little bit extra at the gym. DOMS usually arrives 24-48 hours after exercise . Research shows that infrared and red light therapy can be an excellent tool for preventing and easing DOMS for people of all age groups and exercise/movement types.
Having strong and toned muscles is not only important for the young, athletic and body builders, muscle strength and growth is just as important for those with a few more years behind them. Age-related muscle wastage is known as sarcopenia. This condition has become very prominent in the ageing population. It is normal to lose some muscle mass with age but if steps aren't taken to keep it to a minimum it will begin to affect health. Sarcopenia has been found to be an important risk factor for health as it increases the risk of falls, frailness and a loss of independence . This muscle loss occurs when there is an imbalance between the catabolic response, which results in the reduction of muscle size, and the anabolic response, which builds muscle . A stronger catabolic response means the muscles will have reduced growth. Factors which will encourage this catabolic response is not eating enough protein, favouring refined carbohydrates over fruits, vegetables and whole grains while not getting enough exercise and movement . A sedentary lifestyle is the most important risk factor for developing sarcopenia to the level where it can increase risk factors. As the saying goes “move it or lose it”, quite literally! For those who have had a more sedentary lifestyle, it is important to start slowly and consider getting the support from a physical therapist or an exercise physiologist to help prevent harm. Using infrared and red technology will also help to prevent damage as well as get the best results possible.
How does it work to prevent damage, improve exercise ability and enhance recovery?
The theory behind the benefit from light therapy is based on the stimulation of the mitochondria . The mitochondria are the little batteries within cells . Within the mitochondria is where adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) is made . The muscles rely heavily on ATP as a source of energy needed for muscle work. By increasing ATP level, the muscle cells can work better and will have less damage.
What are the benefits of red and infrared technology for use on the muscles?
- Infrared and red light stimulates, heals, and regenerates damaged tissue, including the muscles .
Both pre-conditioning (light delivered to muscles before exercise) and applied after exercise can increase sports performance in athletes . There has been talk about whether light therapy should be allowed in athletic competition by the international regulatory authorities World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). If this is to occur they have the difficult problem of figuring out how to detect whether light therapy has been used. At this stage, there is no biochemical test that can conclusively detect whether muscles had been exposed to the potentially ‘banned light’ .
Light therapy increases the maximal load ability, muscle growth, expression of genes for muscle growth and defence against oxidative stress. It also decreases fatigue, markers of muscle damage and DOMS, expression of genes related to inflammation and muscle death/shrinkage in muscle tissue testing .
Are there any side effects?
- All studies showed a lack of side effects .
It was found to be safe due to no thermal damage to the tissue .
Should infrared and red technology be used before or after exercise?
After reviewing many studies, it appears that there are benefits to using the light therapy before and after exercise.
Some of the studies have shown that if the therapy is used right before exercise there is no benefit shown. Generally, the recommendation is to use the therapy within the hour before but not within 5-10 minutes of exercise. It is thought that if it is used too close to the time of exercise it can interrupt signalling of the beneficial inflammatory response for muscular remodelling .
- Pre-conditioning the muscles with this technology has the purpose of increasing sports performance, reducing muscle damage and preventing pain developing after a single bout of exercise . Some studies show that the benefit of pre-conditioning muscles with infrared/red technology will last for 3-6 hours where the mitochondrial function will stay increased . This means there is quite a wide window where the pre-conditioning benefits will last, allowing for people to gain the benefit of this technology by working it into their exercise/daily plan.
The other time that infrared and red technology can be used is after exercise to accelerate muscle recovery. This strategy appears to be especially effective when used in combination with regular exercise training programs, results lasting for days or even weeks . In addition, the use of light therapy after each session of exercise training programs can increase the potential gains of performance . There also seems to be a defence against oxidative stress, increased muscle cell development, content of energy in the muscle cell and mitochondrial metabolism .
- The application may have additional beneficial value in post-injury rehabilitation where strength improvements are needed .
Generally, most studies agree that further research needs to occur to determine exactly when is the best time to use the therapy for optimal benefits. For now, it appears that whenever the technology is used it is going to be beneficial as long as the 5-10 minute window before exercise is avoided.
What are the most effective wavelengths?
The studied wavelengths have been mainly in the red (630–660 nm) and near-infrared (808–950 nm) spectral regions. That said, many of the studies favour the infrared spectrum due to its ability to penetrate deeper .
- There has been an increased use of mixed red and infrared wavelengths recently to take advantage of 'the best of both worlds'. Treatment with red and infrared wavelengths at the same time seem to offer advantages based on the absorption of the components within the mitochondria that absorb the light This results in even more synthesis of ATP than either red or infrared used alone .
What are some of the specific results from the research?
Increased maximum voluntary contractions
- In most studies there is an increase in the contraction ability. In one study there was an increase of as much as 7% contraction strength when just one treatment was applied to the legs 10 minutes before strength training, leading to enhancement of strength training. .
Increased number of repetitions with pre-conditioning
People experience a longer time taken for muscles to be exhausted of their contraction ability allowing for more repetitions .
People also experience a slower decline in the amount of force they can use during the exercise .
Decreased muscle damage
Studies have found there was less muscle damage on a chemical level through blood testing and also sampling of muscle tissue. Generally it was shown there was decreased lactate levels in blood as well as lower creatine kinase and C-reactive protein, which are measures of muscle damage and inflammation .
When used post-exercise, there was a reduction in DOMS. They found less restriction and a smaller decrease in the range of motion which results from exercise in the 24h to 96 hour period after exercise 
Long lasting benefits
- It was found that the benefits of application can last up to 90-96 hours . This means treatment does not need to occur every day but can be used every 2-4 days to still maintain the results.
- A group of elderly women attended a strength training program with leg extension in a chair twice a week for 8 weeks. Half of the women were treated with infrared light to the quadriceps muscle of the leg after their training sessions. It was reported that the treated group experienced increased work ability, peak force and power compared to the control group . Measurements were also taken of the circumference of the leg to show an increase in size, determined to be due to muscle growth .
Application of phototherapy resulted in enhanced strength gains when it is applied before exercise .
Light therapy can increase muscle mass gained after training, and decrease inflammation and oxidative stress in muscle biopsies .
- The thickness of the knee extensor muscle increased in the treatment group in one study compared to placebo as assessed by ultrasound .
- Using light therapy before exercising on a treadmill increased the oxygen uptake in the body. It was also shown that the participants in the study had a longer maximum time of running on the treadmill when compared with the placebo group, attributed to better oxygen usage in the muscles .
This light therapy also showed an increased cardiovascular efficiency when applied to the quadriceps .
The value that muscles provide to human bodies is undervalued. People must care for their muscles when young and older to ensure a healthy and vital life. Pairing great nutrition with movement and infrared/red technology can be a great way to maintain strong and abundant muscle mass. For those who exercise at a competitive or elite level, infrared and red technology can give that extra edge in a non-pharmaceutical and safe manner.
 Cleveland Clinic - Orthopedics, How can you avoid muscle loss as you age?, Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Advisor, August 2019, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-can-you-avoid-muscle-loss-as-you-age/
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 Ferraresi C., Huang Y.Y., Hamblin M.R., Photobiomodulation in human muscle tissue: an advantage in sports performance?, Journal of Biophotonics, December, 2016 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5167494/
 Gaul, W., Mitochondria, National Human Genome Research Institute, viewed 14/7/2021, https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Mitochondria#:~:text=Mitochondria%20are%20membrane%2Dbound%20cell,called%20adenosine%20triphosphate%20(ATP).
 Olsen, G., What Is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and What Can You Do About It?, Healthline, June 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/doms#:~:text=Delayed%2Donset%20muscle%20soreness%20(DOMS,It's%20called%20acute%20muscle%20soreness.
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