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Sauna in Physical Therapy Practice

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Physical Therapists (PTs) play essential roles in today’s health care environment and are recognized as vital providers of rehabilitation, habilitation, prevention and risk reduction services. They are probably best known in helping rehabilitate patients, including accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions such as low-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy. PTs practice in most healthcare settings, private homes, education and research centers, schools, hospices, occupational environments, fitness centers and sports training facilities. In 2008, there were 185,000 practicing PTs in the US and the occupation is expected to experience faster growth through 2018.

Sauna use has strong potential to become a central technique in PT practice. Specific areas of physical therapy that would likely benefit from sauna are cardiopulmonary, geriatric, and orthopedic where exercise is used as a stimulus to improve cardiovascular functioning. A unique quality of sauna that makes it particularly useful to these areas is that sauna is one of the only cardio exercises that does not require movement and can therefore accommodate a wider range of patients based on ambulatory ability. Knee, hip or other joint problems are not a problem with sauna and in fact may aid in pain relief.

Several researchers found sauna therapeutic in treating high blood pressure and myocardial infarction. See: Empirical Evidence for the Health Benefits of Sauna. In the most recent study, published in The American Journal of Cardiology, researchers used sauna treatment with 41 patients with heart failure and found that sauna treatment increased the heart’s ability to pump blood, and boosted the distance participants could walk in 6 minutes from 337 meters to 379 meters. The team also noticed improved function of the endothelium – the membrane lining the inside of the heart that releases factors controlling the diameter of blood vessels, and clotting. The researchers also found more circulating endothelial progenitor cells – adult stem cells that can turn into endothelial cells. See: Effects of Sauna Treatment on Patients with Chronic Heart Failure.

Heckel HT2000M used for Whole Body Hyperthermia

One present danger in developing the use of sauna in physical therapy is that medical researchers ignore the time-tested traditional methods of sweat rituals that include multiple therapeutic variables. Researchers have followed this path in an effort to isolate the heat as being the only therapeutic agent of the experience. Some researchers would be perfectly happy with putting people into heated cylinder-like canisters. The use of a traditional form of sweat ritual is not only more human but may also be more effective. See: Sweat Therapy Theory. As medical professionals push forward, they would be well advised to take advantage of the numerous extratherapeutic variables available through the traditional use of sweat rituals.

A growing force that supports the traditional use of sauna and other sweat rituals in medical settings is the use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Practices (CAM). CAM is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products, (typically forms of traditional medicine), that are not generally considered to be part of conventional medicine. The use of CAM in hospital settings is becoming common practice. The most common CAM practices offered in hospitals include acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and variations on massage such as reiki. As a CAM practice in a medical setting, sauna offers comprehensiveness yet flexibility. Sauna offers the potential for significant effects to mind, body and spirit and can be integrated with a wide range of techniques and expertise. The combination of sauna with counseling/psychotherapy further amplifies the therapeutic opportunities to patients receiving physical therapy. For more information on integrating sauna with counseling/psychotherapy into a wide range of healthcare settings, see: Sweat Therapy: A Guide to Greater Well-Being.


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