You’ve probably heard about red light therapy as a way to treat skin disorders, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, or regrow hair. But did you know that its longer-wavelength cousin, near-infrared (NIR) light, actually penetrates through bone, and absorbs much deeper into the body’s tissues with even more therapeutic benefits? 

NIR light therapy has successfully treated chronic joint pain, muscle injury, bone disorders, and even stroke and traumatic brain injury, as well as a host of other conditions.

This article discusses what light therapy is and the benefits of near-infrared light. We’ll also cover everything you need to know about light therapy devices so you can pick the best near-infrared light therapy device for your personal needs.

Note: Note: Visit our INFRARED LIGHT THERAPY product pages to learn more about our line of clinical-grade light therapy devices, which includes both red and near-infrared light by default.

What Is Near-Infrared Light Therapy?

NIR light is commonly grouped under the broader umbrella of red light therapy, as well as low-level laser therapy or photobiomodulation, but this is technically incorrect.

Really, these various therapies use completely different light waves. Red light, for example, uses rays with wavelengths ranging from 630nm (nanometers), to 660nm, and NIR from 810nm to 850nm.

The term near-infrared light is also often used interchangeably with infrared (IR) light, but while related, they are not the same.

Infrared light has a longer wavelength, and under normal conditions is invisible to the human eye.

Although it is used in saunas and other applications, the most notable difference between IR and NIR light is that IR light generates a great deal of heat.

This makes it unsuitable for use in light therapy panels because excessive heat can burn the skin, and on a deeper level, damage cells.

Near infrared light therapy devices (NIR) use light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs to deliver precisely calibrated wavelengths of light in concentrations that easily absorb into the skin. This results in therapeutic benefits at the cellular level.

How Light Affects the Body?

Our bodies react positively to sunlight, though some wavelengths are more beneficial than others.

In order to understand how NIR light therapy works, it’s important to know how the human body is affected by light.

Our bodies are highly reactive to sunlight. In the morning, the rising sun stimulates a small region of the brain called the hypothalamus, which plays a crucial role in important functions such as the release of hormones. In the evening, the setting sun signals the body to start shutting down energy production and preparing for sleep.

Natural sunlight has been used for therapeutic purposes since ancient times. It is known for boosting the immune system and stimulating the production of vitamin D, an essential nutrient that helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. Also, because sunlight is a mood-booster, it helps treat a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

As beneficial as sunlight can be, however, it also poses hazards. Too much exposure to the sun’s powerful ultraviolet radiation can cause premature aging of the skin as well as damage to DNA, which can lead to skin cancer.

Years of studying light have enabled scientists to isolate specific wavelengths and determine their benefits and dangers. In recent years, scientists have discovered a broad range of effects that specific wavelengths of visible light have on the body. Blue light, for example, helps our natural sleep and wake cycles. Because blue light blocks the hormone melatonin, which induces sleepiness, it can interfere with sleep. That’s why using blue light-emitting electronic gadgets at night can keep us awake.

The red light spectrum is particularly known for its energy-stimulating properties at the cellular level. As red light is absorbed into the skin, it stimulates activity in the mitochondria, which are the energy centers of most cells in the body. Mitochondria absorb the light and begin producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary fuel of most cells in the human body. Healthy, energized cells are thriving cells. They perform their own specialized functions, and repair and replicate themselves more easily than low-energy cells that are fighting for survival. 

The Difference Between Red Light and NIR Light.

Although near-infrared light is part of the red light family, their different wavelengths determine how deeply they are absorbed into the body. Red light is “skin deep,” penetrating about 1/3″ (8.5mm) beneath the skin. It is the undisputed star for treating surface conditions like psoriasis, eczema, fine lines and wrinkles, or hair loss. Red light is most effective, however, when used in conjunction with NIR light.

Red light and NIR light have the same energy-stimulating properties. But because of NIR light’s deeper absorption into the body (3 1/3” or 84.7mm), it can penetrate bones, joints, muscles, and tissues that red light cannot reach. This allows for more thorough treatment of underlying conditions that could be at the root of chronic skin disorders or the aching pain from rheumatoid arthritis.

One of NIR light’s most notable benefits is how it decreases inflammation, which is the immune system’s reaction to an irritant. Under normal conditions, inflammation is beneficial because it is a natural part of the healing process. Chronic inflammation, however, is a sign that the immune system has begun to mistakenly attack healthy tissue.

It has been linked to autoimmune disorders, as well as heart disease, cancer, hormonal imbalances, and many other chronic conditions. Reducing chronic inflammation while stimulating normal, healthy cell proliferation can ease symptoms, ease pain, and reduce the recurrence of chronic conditions.

Given the current body of research, red light therapy should be considered a treatment, not a cure.

Even so, studies on the connection between inflammation and disease show that reducing chronic inflammation using NIR (near infrared light therapy devices) can cause spontaneous healing of symptoms.

Benefits of NIR Light Therapy

Light therapy encourages cellular repair and regeneration, which can slow or even halt the inflammatory response and give the body a chance to repair itself.
NIR therapy has been applied successfully in animal studies to treat wounds, sprains, bone fractures, and also brain injuries.
These studies have also shown that NIR light therapy has great promise for treating neurodegenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Learn more about how red and NIR light can help Parkinson’s disease patients here.
Human clinical trials have also produced some exciting findings. NIR light has been used for:
Pain relief
Traumatic brain injuries and stroke
Anti-aging applications
Accelerated wound healing
Bone repair and growth,
Psychiatric disorders including anxiety and depression
Athletic performance and muscle recovery
And more

Note that while near-infrared, red and infrared light therapy can not be considered cures, they have shown promise for potentially reducing side effects or alleviating symptoms of the above conditions. Click each link to learn more.

Even if you don’t have any serious conditions or chronic pain and you’re simply looking to enhance overall wellness, NIR therapy has a total-body stimulating and anti-inflammatory effect that can cause a positive chain reaction of improved health.Essentially, any condition that can be treated with red light, can be treated with NIR light at a deeper level. For example, non-hereditary hair loss and weight gain can be caused by thyroid imbalance (specifically, hypothyroidism), and research has shown that NIR stimulates a sluggish thyroid.
Although red light cannot penetrate bone or large muscles, NIR can. When choosing between the two, simply consider the physical depth of the conditions you’re treating, and whether going deeper could address underlying causes. For example, a skin wound can be treated using red light therapy.
But a chronic skin condition like rosacea or an autoimmune disorder like arthritis needs the extra penetration depth of NIR to reduce systemic inflammation that could be contributing to the disorder.
When in doubt, choose a red light therapy device that gives you the choice between red and NIR light, or offers a combination of both for more comprehensive treatment.