What, if any, are the medical benefits of “infrared” sauna? Does it “detoxify” the body, provide a cardiovascular workout, or promote healing? Have there been any reports of adverse effects?
—Steven Olson, MD, MPH, Colebrook, N.H.
Infrared sauna bathing has been proposed as a potential therapeutic option for conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to ventricular arrhythmias. In short, there is no conclusive, large-scale, randomized, controlled trial to show definitive benefit in any of these cases. Small studies do raise compelling arguments, however. For example, Kihara et al examined ventricular arrhythmias, as determined by premature ventricular contractions and heart-rate variability on Holter monitoring, in a group of 37 patients with class II or III congestive heart failure. Regular sauna bathing in these subjects showed a statistically significant decrease in “ventricular arrhythmias” by the authors’ criteria (Circ J. 2004;68:1146-1151). Others have proposed more general effects on mood improvement and appetite in depressed subjects (Psychosom Med. 2005;67:643-647). Broader claims of “detoxification” and antioxidant effects are difficult to substantiate clinically. It is known that transient hemodynamic changes occur with exposure to infrared sauna, as with any heat source. For this reason, there are theoretical risks, including hypotension, arrhythmia, and even sudden death. Alcohol consumption might potentiate such risks (Am J Med. 2001;110:118-126).
—Christopher Ruser, MD (111-17)