If you’ve ever worked out hard and hopped into the sauna or had body aches from a cold and sat in a warm bath, and felt instant relief, then you know hot baths and saunas relieve pain. (Something the Finnish have known for thousands of years.)

And as it turns out, science agrees, too. Dr. David Burke, head of Emory University’s Center for Rehabilitative Medicine, says:1

“When you step into a hot bath and your core temperature goes up, a number of things happen that help with pain. Hot baths expand the blood vessels in those areas and allow the healing properties within the blood to be delivered. They relax the muscles, which takes the tension off of them and the nerves that have been injured.”

But studies have found benefits to hot soaking and saunas, beyond pain relief, as well.

In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Physiology found that after just eight weeks of repeated hot water immersion, the hearts of healthy young adults saw both lowered blood pressure and more flexible arteries.

And scientists in Finland, who followed more than 1,600 middle-aged men with normal blood pressure who used saunas over a 25-year period, found that those who visited a sauna two or three times a week were 24% less likely to have hypertension compared with those who visited once a week or less. But those who visited four to seven times a week had a 46% reduction. Their study was published in the American Journal of Hypertension. 2
Another study from Finland followed more than 2,300 healthy men who used the sauna each week for six years and found that frequent heat exposure from saunas, throughout the week, was associated with lower risk of dementia.
While none of these studies can prove cause and effect, the evidence is strong and is proof that more study needs to be done. However, in the U.S. there aren’t large groups of people who use saunas and hot water immersion (like they do in Finland).
Dr. Burke, who specializes in brain injuries, also recommends weekly saunas as a quick and easy way to preserve the brain that hasn’t been hurt, “This is one thing that’s passive and easier to do, especially in people who have injured joints who need to keep their brains and hearts in good condition but can’t physically do some of the exercises.”3 He believes sauna is good because it allows small blood vessels in the brain to open, thereby potentially stopping micro deterioration in the brain.
A couple precautions
If you have just been injured (within 48 hours) ice is best for the healing process to decrease inflammation, but after 48 hours heat is good.
Also, people with low blood pressure or more severe cardiovascular conditions should check with their doctor before beginning a short or long-term hot water immersion plan. And blood pressure meds might also “affect how your vascular system responds to heat and cold” so drinking plenty of water before and after will counter any dehydrating effects.
Enjoy, relax and breath deeply. It’s never too late to start listening to your body and giving it what it needs!

Sources and References

  1. CNN, February 21, 2018.
  2. CNN, February 21, 2018.
  3. CNN, February 21, 2018.