Muscular sclerosis (MS) and muscle aches often go hand in hand. With muscles that feel like they are tight and cramping, you may be seeking something to relieve muscle soreness. Just as hot tubs and baths are known to release tense muscles, heat therapy from saunas may help with the muscle aches and spasms that come with MS — if you can tolerate the heat.
There are many types of saunas, each with different kinds of heat: dry, wet, or infrared. Whether or not saunas help relieve MS muscle aches varies by person and if you are sensitive to heat.
This article talks about what people with MS should consider before trying saunas to relieve MS muscle aches and spasms, how the different types of saunas work, and what MyMSTeam members say about them.
Many people with MS find that heat, such as from hot or humid weather or from running a fever, makes their MS symptoms worse. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, heat sensitivity is very common among people with MS. Years ago, the “hot bath” test was used to help diagnose MS — someone who was thought to have MS was put in a hot bath to look for evidence of worsening symptoms.
Although heat sensitivity is extremely common, not everyone with MS is sensitive to heat. Multiple Sclerosis Trust, a UK-based MS organization, notes that between 60 percent and 80 percent of people with MS find that heat makes their symptoms worse. Exacerbated symptoms might include:
What about heat from saunas? A study testing the effect of a stint in a dry sauna among people with MS found that it negatively affects physical functioning, such as walking or getting up from a chair.
The worsening effect of heat is temporary and does not increase disease activity. However, the discomfort caused by high temperatures for some people with MS is enough to make them avoid saunas.
However, some MyMSTeam members do find relief from MS muscle aches by using a sauna. In fact, one MyMSTeam member said that heat making MS worse is one piece of advice they wished people would stop telling people with MS, emphasizing that “saunas have been so good to me.”
There are three different types of saunas. Although they all are similar in that they increase your body temperature, the way they do that is what makes them different. You may find that one type of sauna works better for you than others.
Below are descriptions of how each type of sauna works as well as what MyMSTeam members say about sauna use. Finding the right sauna to help with MS pain and muscle aches may take some trial and error.
Dry saunas are generally thought of as the traditional sauna, or Finnish sauna. They work by heating the air in the room to a certain temperature. They won’t get steamy because there is no water being added, hence “dry heat.” The temperatures in a dry sauna generally range from 150 degrees Fahrenheit to 195 F.
Many MyMSTeam members note that heat makes them feel worse. One member said they “cannot have any heat or my old MS symptoms start up!” Yet, it does vary across members. Although some people note that even dry, hot weather is bad for their MS, a dry sauna may be tolerable. As one MyMSTeam member put it, “I have a difficult time with heat when the weather changes. However, I find that a short stint in the dry sauna doesn’t really bother me that much when the weather is cold.”
The general recommendation is to spend no more than 15 to 20 minutes in a sauna. Talk to your health care provider about how much time is right for you. If you are cleared to try it out, listen to your body and go slow. You can build up over time as it makes sense to you. One MyMSTeam member commented: “Heat seems to help me. I would not overdo it. Moderation is important for many things.”
Another member wrote, “I too enjoy a good sit in a sauna. It did make my joints feel so much better. I started to notice that I could not stay in very long. I could feel the life being sucked right out of me, so into the locker room and a cool shower.”
Wet saunas are also called “steam rooms” or “steam saunas.” As the name suggests, they produce “wet heat” because of the steam that comes from water that is heated up in the room. Dry saunas are hotter and heat the body more efficiently. Wet saunas also get hot (usually 110 F to 120 F) and will also make you sweat. The moisture from the steam combines with the sweat on your body to create a cooling effect.
A steam sauna may have fewer physiological benefits than a dry sauna because the condensation on the skin from the steam reduces the evaporation of sweat. The steam also makes the sauna heat up quicker, which may mean you stay in there for less time.
Infrared saunas directly warm the body from the heat of infrared lamps. This is different from a dry sauna, which heats the air, which then heats you. In this way, infrared saunas are more efficient at making you warm. Infrared saunas are also less hot, with lower temperatures usually between 105 F and 140 F.
The milder heat than that of a dry sauna may make infrared saunas an intriguing choice for some people. However, an infrared sauna is still very hot, and heat sensitivity is still a factor.
MyMSTeam members share some factors about infrared saunas to keep in mind. For example, when a MyMSTeam member asked, “Can I still use my infrared sauna?” another shared their hope that “at 100 degrees (where I normally keep it), it should be fine. Especially if before MS, it made me feel better.”
If you haven’t tried a sauna before, or since you’ve been diagnosed with MS, you are probably wondering how it would affect you and your MS symptoms. Will it be worth it?
Heat and saunas work for some MyMSTeam members and definitely not for others. Check with your doctor or neurologist before trying a sauna, and keep in mind ways to cool down.
Although many websites will tout the health benefits of sauna use or “sauna bathing” to improve well-being, their claims may not be evidence-based or relevant for people with MS.
When one MyMSTeam member mentioned they are looking into building a sauna, asking what others thought, another member wisely suggested trying it out before making any investment: “Any chance you can check out how you’d do at a local gym before you make the investment? Everyone is so individual with this disease, I would think that would be the best way to check.”
Keep these safety tips in mind when using saunas with MS:
However, some studies have found cardiovascular benefits of sauna use even in people with cardiovascular disease. If you have heart issues, talk with your doctor before trying a sauna.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with MS and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 186,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.
Are you living with MS? Have you tried a sauna for muscle aches? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.