How to Relieve Hip Pain after Running: A Research-Backed Approach
If you’re a runner, you’ve probably felt it before: hip pain that comes out of nowhere and makes your next run impossible. The repetitive range of motion employed in running, plus the pressure on joints that results from feet pounding the pavement, can aggravate the area around the hip joint in various ways.
To alleviate this pain, most people reach for an ice pack or pop a few ibuprofen, which is fine—but it doesn’t always work. If this sounds familiar, you may want to try an exciting new treatment that’s used by professional atheletes in all sports around the globe to improve athletic performance and reduce recovery times. We’re talking about red light therapy.
Below, we’ll briefly review common causes of hip pain in runners, review how red light therapy works and how it helps reduce pain like back pain, joint pain, and knee pain, and explain how to use it as part of a healthy running routine.
Note: Want to try red light therapy as part of your running routine? Check out our line of athlete-approved red light therapy panels.
What Causes Hip Pain in Runners?
The most serious causes of hip pain are often linked to inflammation, which is the body’s natural immune response to tissue damage. These kinds of injuries can include:
Trochanteric bursitis. This happens when the bursae—which are small fluid-filled sacs between the tendon and bone that lubricate the outer hip joint—become inflamed. Bursitis can be debilitating as it worsens.
Iliotibial band syndrome. Also known as the IT band, the iliotibial band is the tendon running along the outside of the thigh, from hip to knee, and connecting the hip to the shin bone. When this becomes inflamed, it can be quite painful.
Hip, thigh, or hamstring muscle injury tear. Muscle tears, such as a labral (shoulder) tear, often result when one or more muscles overcompensate for weaker, complementary muscles. When this happens at the site of the hip flexor (the muscles connecting the legs and trunk), you’ll feel significant hip pain.
Sometimes hip pain manifests in more benign ways, such as a general soreness around the hip that’s possibly linked to overuse or misalignment. Either way, it’s best to see a sports medicine doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment, which might include physical therapy. But if the pain you’re experiencing persists and becomes too hard to treat, consider red light therapy as a means of treating—and preventing—hip injuries.
Methods of Alleviating Hip Pain
There are many methods for treating inflammation, the most common source of hip pain in runners. The two most popular are RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) and NSAIDs, which are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
Both of these methods work well for relatively quick pain relief, but neither provides the healing power that red light therapy can offer. This is because red light therapy has a unique cellular effect that’s been scientifically proven to stimulate healing, relieve pain, and reduce inflammation.
Sometimes called low-level laser therapy (LLLT), or photobiomodulation (PBM), red light therapy involves exposing your body to concentrated wavelengths of light that, studies show, can treat and heal a variety of ailments. The term “red light” is often used when referring to red light and near-infrared (NIR) light. Wavelengths of red light fall between 630 nanometers (nm) to 660 nm; NIR wavelengths, which are invisible to the naked eye, fall between 800nm to 1100nm.
Both red and NIR wavelengths penetrate the skin and stimulate individual cells to produce cellular energy, which is how they generate healing effects. Red light can penetrate about 10mm into the skin (skin deep), while NIR light can penetrate about 2 to 7 centimeters—deep enough to penetrate cartilage and even bone.
The Healing Power of Red Light Therapy
Red light’s proven ability to heal chronic inflammation is good news for anyone who suffers from running-related hip pain. Before getting into specifically how red light therapy helps with hip injuries among runners, let’s take an in-depth look at inflammation.
Inflammation: Both Good and Bad
When a cut or wound is reddened, swollen, and painful to the touch, these are signs that it is inflamed. Because of how unpleasant it can be, sufferers might assume that inflammation is the same as infection—but that isn’t true. Inflammation is the body’s immune response to tissue damage and a sign that the immune system is working to prevent infection or heal a sprain or other injury.
As this Active article explains, inflammation is a three-stage process. First, blood rushes to the site of the damaged tissue (such as the IT band) and causes it to become stiff and swollen. Walking around on the injured leg becomes difficult and painful, which is kind of the point: Your body is making it hard for you to maneuver to prevent you from further injuring the area.
The next inflammatory phase occurs when special white blood cells released by your immune system flock to the injured area and absorb all the bad, damaged cells. In the final stage, cells called macrophages arrive at the site of the injury. Their job is to continue cleaning up the damaged cells while stimulating the regeneration of tissue, which is necessary to repair the injury.
So that’s the good side of inflammation—the body’s response to the tissue damage that results from working out.
Inflammation takes a turn for the worse when it becomes chronic, or long-lasting. This occurs when severe tissue damage triggers the release of free radicals, which are unstable molecules that damage cells, proteins, and DNA. As these molecules swarm the injury, they can cause further tissue damage. You might not feel the aches and pains until a day or two after your run, which is why the effect is called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
In the case of joint tissues, like those found near the bursae, chronic inflammation can delay the healing and repair of damaged tissue. This can cause persistent hip pain—the kind that forces you to sit out for not just one run, but a week’s worth of runs.
Rest is an essential part of the healing process, but let’s face it, resting can be frustrating for someone who’s used to being active. But what if there was a therapeutic method that could potentially speed up this process, heal your injury, and get you back on your feet sooner? As it turns out, there is—red light therapy, and it offers many benefits for runners.
Red Light at the Cellular Level
The essence of red light therapy is that it affects cellular activity. In this article, renowned red light therapy expert Michael Hamblin and his co-authors discuss how red light stimulates cells. Here’s the condensed version:
When it is absorbed into the body’s tissue, red light activates mitochondria, which are tiny, membrane-bound substructures in the cells of all living beings.
Mitochondria are often called “power generators” or “energy factories” because their main function is to convert nutrients into a high-energy molecule known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Research has shown that red light stimulates mitochondria to produce more ATP, and scientists believe this surge in production leads to a number of physiological benefits. One of these is an increase in collagen production, which can lead to a reduction of wrinkles (as seen in this 2009 study by researchers from Quebec, Canada) and faster healing of wounds (examined in this 2008 study by researchers from Brazil).
Red Light Battles Inflammation
Because it is so effective at treating inflammation, red light therapy is known as a therapeutic technique for many inflammatory illnesses. One of these is fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that’s characterized by widespread pain and tenderness. During a 2019 study, researchers from Taiwan found that LLLT significantly alleviated symptoms of patients with fibromyalgia.
A 2014 metastudy by researchers from Brazil involved close analysis of 17 studies on the effect of LLLT on skeletal muscle repair. The authors concluded that LLLT is an effective treatment for acute muscle injuries—including those caused by inflammation—and that it stimulates new blood vessels, among other positive outcomes.
One of those 17 studies, which was published in a 2016 issue of Free Radical Research, demonstrated that injured rats subjected to photobiomodulation for five days had better functionality and movement than the control group, which did not receive the treatment.
After all the rats had been euthanized, those that had undergone red light therapy were found to show lower levels of markers normally associated with a trauma-induced proinflammatory state—meaning, their bodies showed fewer signs of having experienced inflammation. These were the same rats that, when alive, demonstrated better mobility after LLLT. This makes sense when considering that inflammation is the body’s way of inhibiting movement to prevent further injury.
Reducing Joint Pain: A Case Study
Lab studies are important for gathering data and understanding how these processes work at the cellular level. Equally as convincing (perhaps even more so) are stories shared by real people who have used red light therapy.
In her popular blog, Grasping for Objectivity, Rachel Callahan writes about her experience with red light therapy after an injury hampered her running and training. She experienced remarkable results after just a few treatment sessions with a PlatinumLED therapy light. Not only did the pain disappear, but Callahan’s average run time improved, she had more energy, and she slept better.
Adding Red Light Therapy to Your Running Routine
If you’re ready to experience the benefits of red light therapy, you’ll be pleased to know that as a practice, it’s pretty low-intensive. Just comfortably position yourself in front of panels fitted with LED bulbs that emit red and/or NIR light. Practitioners suggest sitting in front of the panels for about 15 minutes at a time, with the light targeting specific areas of the body. Be sure the areas being treated are bare, rather than covered with clothing.
If you’re a runner with hip pain, you’ll want to lie on your back, sit in a chair, or stand while the panel is aimed at each side, targeting the hip joint. You can also perform stretches in front of the panels, if that’s comfortable, or remain still. Either way, the red light will penetrate the skin and activate the healing process.
There are a few ways to work red light therapy into your running regime, whether your goal is to heal injuries, such as those involving the IT band or bursae, or to prevent injuries altogether.
Red Light Therapy After Running
Trainers and coaches recommend that you stretch after running. You can improve on that by stretching while in front of a red light panel; just make sure to expose the offending body part to the light. Your body will benefit not only from the stretching itself but from the healing power of red light, which can help damaged muscles heal and thus stave off inflammation. It’s also a great idea to incorporate a red light therapy session on an active rest day.
Red Light Therapy While Resting
If you’re already down for the count because of a hip injury, you should first talk to a doctor or physical therapist who can determine the injury’s severity and source. A doctor is likely to recommend RICE, NSAIDs, etc.
You can augment this recovery plan by adding in red light therapy sessions, in which you aim the panel at the injured hip(s). This way, you’re not only listening to your doctor; you’re also helping the damaged tissue heal faster by breaking the inflammation cycle—the root of serious injuries involving the IT band, and bursitis, among others.
Red Light Therapy After Cross-Training
Some running-induced hip injuries are muscle tears that result when one side overcompensates, causing a misalignment. Cross-training (and also strength training) can help. In general, this is an exercise to target muscles that are different from the ones you rely on in your primary sport.
Like any exercise, cross-training involves intentionally damaging muscle tissue to jump-start the repair and rebuilding process. You can potentially help your body recover faster from cross-training—either after you exercise or between reps—by positioning yourself in front of a red light panel and absorbing those healing wavelengths.
Red Light Therapy: The Best Running Partner
Setting up an at-home red light therapy station to complement your running routine has never been easier. PlatinumLED offers a range of options for customized light panel arrangements that feature red light, NIR light, or a combination of both.
Panels in the BIO series come in a variety of sizes and configurations:
- The Red 660nm targets collagen production and wound healing.
- The NIR 850nm targets deep tissue repair and pain relief, which is ideal for runners with hip pain; and
- The BIO Red 660nm / NIR 850mn combo offers the best of both wavelengths, either combined or one at a time.
The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series also comes in various sizes and wavelengths but has superior irradiance levels with the strongest output on the market. The BIOMAX series panels are modular and linkable in construction, which allows you to target multiple areas of the body at once for more efficient recovery and healing process.
Hip pain may seem an inevitable consequence of running, but it doesn’t have to be. With minimal time investment, red light therapy can help keep pain at bay and keep you on the road.