The pain was so bad that Donna Elliot couldn't stand the sheet touching her toes at night. Her muscles were twisted in knots, and it felt as if sharp needles were piercing her feet.
For Duane Axelton, burning pain was part of his life, 24 hours a day. He couldn't sleep, eat or walk without being reminded of his debilitating disease.
Both Elliot and Axelton had been diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy. In diabetics, high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels, causing decreased blood flow to the extremities. The resulting nerve damage, called neuropathy, can leave its victims with little or no sensation in their feet -- and sometimes, as for Elliot and Axelton, with burning, constant pain.
Doctors prescribed medication for Axelton, which did little to help his sleepless nights. But in 2003, a diabetes educator told Axelton about an innovative new form of technology called monochromatic infrared energy (MIRE), which causes a release of nitric oxide from the bodies red blood cells, and in turn creates better blood flow and circulation.
Infrared had been used to help heal the legs of injured racehorses, and it was believed it could have the same effect on humans. Axelton was the first person in Coos County to receive the infrared treatment for his neuropathy -- a disease that doctors once told him would plague him for the rest of his life.
'Within one week the pain was a little less intense," he said. 'After two weeks I noticed a little less pain. After a couple months there was a big difference, and today I am pain-free."
Elliot is also pain-free today because of infrared.
'The first time I went in for treatment, I came out pain-free for over a day," she said. 'It was amazing to me the difference it made. After a couple of months, nothing bothered my feet."
Bringing infrared to Coos County
Infrared technology was introduced to Coos County in 2003. In 2005, licensed massage therapist Sarah Hicks helped open the MIRE Healing Center, which saw a 70 percent success rate in neuropathy patients. Hicks said she has helped reverse more than 500 cases of neuropathy.
Hicks traveled across the state of Oregon and helped open 60 infrared clinics. She currently offers infrared therapy at Essential Elements Center for Regeneration and Pain Relief on Thompson Road.
She uses infrared to treat patients with conditions ranging from arthritis to carpal tunnel, and she believes everyone should have an infrared unit in their home.
'If you have ever had someone in your family suffering from chronic pain, it changes the entire dynamic of the family," she said. 'They have to work so hard to be civil because of the pain they are battling. You take that pain away, and you have a much more peaceful family."
Sarah Hicks requests that her prospective patients see her at least three times after an initial evaluation. She also incorporates different styles of massage into the infrared therapy, with a standard session costing $40.
Hicks can cite many instances in which infrared therapy improved someone's life. In fact, she said infrared has an 85-95 percent success rate.
Among Hicks' satisfied patients is Karen Saxton, a martial arts teacher who once thought she would have to give up teaching because of the pain of fibromyalgia. After a year of infrared therapy, her pain is completely gone.
'At first (infrared) didn't sound like something that was real," she said. 'I thought it sounded like voodoo. Now, I am pain-free and can continue teaching martial arts."
Sarah Leahy thought she would have to stop running marathons due to bad calf and foot cramps. But since Sarah Hicks began treating Leahy, she has been pretty much pain-free and able to continue with her passion for running.
'I immediately noticed a decrease in pain," she said. 'After a while the pain phased itself out. I tell people to keep an open mind. It really works."
Kent Buell fell from a ladder and injured his back in 2009. Medication and physical therapy didn't do a thing to help him, but infrared has made it possible for him to return to work again.
'There was nothing else left that I could do," he said referring to his chronic pain. 'Infrared has been the best thing. I have no back pain now."
Why isn't it everywhere?
Sarah Hicks believes infrared is a lifetime cure for chronic pain. Patients can purchase a unit for their home for between $1,000 and $3,000 and use the technology whenever they want.
Hicks thinks the very simplicity of the therapy has kept it from being adopted, because when people find relief for their pain, pharmaceutical companies are left out in the cold.
'The money pharmaceutical companies make off chronic pain right now is off the charts," Hicks said. 'If people have chronic pain for life, they get a client for life. Nobody can make money off of infrared, and that's why it isn't in the mainstream medical."
Hicks went on to say physicians in this area not only refer patients to her, but want infrared in their practice. But, she said, they are hesitant to do so because it isn't as profitable as prescription drugs.
However, she said, Medicare and Medicaid urge physicians to find non-pharmaceutical approaches to their clients. If doctors can find a way to benefit from infrared, it will be in doctors' offices around the county.
Medicare stopped covering infrared a couple of years ago, but Hicks said flex accounts and other insurance providers do cover it. Her hope is that Medicare will again start to cover infrared all across the nation.
'I think this should be the standard for chronic pain care," she said. 'This is a lifetime cure. If this doesn't work, I don't know what else to say."
Elliot reiterates Hicks' belief in infrared and her practice.
'I carry Sarah's card everywhere and preach all about it to anyone who will listen."
Reporter Tyler Richardson can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 236, or at firstname.lastname@example.org