How Does Light Therapy Work for Pain Relief

What is Light Therapy?

More than 50 years have passed since the invention of light therapy, which has also been known as low-level laser therapy, cold/cool laser therapy, soft laser therapy, and low-power laser therapy. Photobiomodulation is the accepted scientific term for light treatment. (PBM).

Currently, light therapy is applied to:

  • Encourage healing
  • Boost tissue regeneration
  • Lessen discomfort and inflammation

Light treatment is effective. Photobiomodulation has no known negative consequences. It won’t damage your skin the way sunshine does. Skin cancer is not brought on by it. Doctors advise users to wear safety goggles to safeguard their eyes.

Although photobiomodulation can also be used to alleviate pain, other forms of light treatment are utilized to treat depression and skin disorders like acne.

With the appropriate equipment and training—more on this later—light therapy can be used to treat pain in a clinical setting or at home.

Whole body pods that resemble tanning beds are another form of photobiomodulation that is available. The NovoThor is one such device that is available at more than 100 clinics globally and is utilized by teams like the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions.

If you work in the medical sector or suffer from chronic pain, you may have heard of the use of light therapy for pain management. Light therapy is a painless way to treat both chronic pain and acute pain using red or infrared light. But does it really work?

It has been scientifically discovered that red and infrared light can exert specific effects on living cells, with many applications for treating inflammation and wound healing. Infrared light therapy (ILT), in particular, offers pain relief benefits that work for everyone, from athletes to casual practitioners or those with chronic muscle or nerve pain. In this article, we’ll explore red and infrared light therapy and how they work for pain relief.

Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy works with the frequency of red light, visible to the human eye, and easily recognizable. Red light therapy for pain uses a red wavelength of light to penetrate the skin that is free from side effects. It uses low levels of heat that does not hurt or burn the skin, and red light therapy ignores exposing the skin to harmful UV rays. Red light therapy can treat both chronic and temporary inflammation and is therefore useful for treating sports injuries.

Some evidence suggests that red light therapy helps the body’s healing process. Research on red light therapy has shown that it can help reduce inflammation. Red light is believed to be able to penetrate deep enough for the body’s tissues to absorb light. The process breaks down excess nitric oxide and restores natural ATP production. It is also believed to stimulate circulation, deliver more nutrients to cells, and remove waste products more quickly. Healthier tissue has less inflammation, heals faster, and has less pain. Red light therapy can help relieve dementia, dental pain, osteoarthritis, and tendonitis.

Blue Light Therapy

Blue light therapy is nearly generally performed as an outpatient operation, and it is typically a relatively rapid process. The photodynamic therapy used to treat cancer in high-risk locations may be the exception to this concept.

Your doctor or a skin care expert will lead you to a dimly lit room inside the office. When employing photosynthesizing medications, they will topically apply the medication to the affected area.

If these medications are being taken, the medication may need to be applied to the skin for a few hours to a few days in order for the skin to absorb it. You’ll be instructed to avoid sunshine and other bright lights, protect your skin, and spend as much time indoors as you can while the drug is in effect, regardless of how long it’s left on.

Your doctor will first offer you eye protection goggles to wear before starting the light treatment before applying light to the desired location.

Depending on the size, location, and condition of the area being treated, treatment sessions might last anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes. If only a small area needs to be treated, such as a single skin cancer spot, blue light will be shone on the affected region for roughly 17 minutes.

People who suffer from depression, including seasonal depression, may have their own blue light treatment equipment at home that they can use every day to relieve symptoms.

Is Light Therapy A Legitimate Treatment for Pain?

Despite becoming FDA-approved for pain management in 2002, light therapy is much more popular in Europe and Australia than it is in the United States. Demchak blames a knowledge gap for this. When he first began employing light therapy to heal patients ten years ago, many medical professionals were unaware of it or had tried it but failed due to improper application.

That’s changed. One is that the beneficial outcomes that practitioners have been observing in their patients for years have finally been confirmed by science. The understanding of how light operates at the molecular, cellular, and tissue levels has advanced recently. According to Michael R. Hamblin, Ph.D., associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of Handbook of Low-level Laser Therapy, recent research explains how a single relatively brief exposure to light can have effects on an organism that lasted for hours, days, or even weeks.

A professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of Handbook of Low-level Laser Therapy explains how an organism can be affected by a single, relatively brief exposure to light in ways that linger for hours, days, or even weeks.

According to Hamblin, photobiomodulation has made “significant progress in obtaining recognition from authorities in medical schools, scholarly journals, the popular press and media, medical practitioners, therapists, and other bodies concerned with biomedical science” as a result of this understanding.

Demchak notes that a range of medical specialists, including athletic trainers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, dentists, massage therapists, and veterinarians, employ light therapy to alleviate pain in the US.

According to Demchak, “the biggest use is currently in dental and chiropractic practices, but there are a lot of athletic trainers and physical therapists starting to use it.”

What Kind of Pain Does Light Therapy Treat?

Acute pain from: 

  • Cervical or lumbar radiculopathy
  • Dental/orthodontics procedures
  • Muscular back pain
  • Post-surgical pain
  • Sprains
  • Strains
  • Tendinitis
  • Whiplash injury

Chronic pain (lasts more than 3 months):

  • Back pain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)
  • Diabetic neuropathy
  • Epicondylitis (tennis or golfer’s elbow)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Migraines
  • Neck pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Postherpetic neuralgia (shingles pain)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Tendinopathy
  • Trigeminal neuralgia

Light Therapy Devices – Try Before You Buy

In light of the possibility that many different treatments have been attempted (and failed) by persons with chronic pain, Dr. Demchak emphasizes the significance of being wise, watchful healthcare consumers.

According to Demchak, PBM devices are easily accessible online without a prescription at prices ranging from $10 to $3,000. Be not intimidated by the thousands of PBM goods available online. Try another instead first.

Before buying a home light treatment device, do this checklist:

  • Try it at a doctor’s appointment. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t buy it.
  • Check whether there is evidence that this particular item reduces pain in your particular condition.
  • Make sure the tool has FDA approval for pain relief.

The only way to determine whether light therapy can reduce your pain is to test it out at a facility that offers PBM, according to Demchak. He issues a warning: “I wouldn’t recommend getting a device at home unless someone has tried it in a clinic and had success with it beforehand,” he says. “The doctor may instruct them on how to use it correctly at home, which is part of that. Technique is important. The outcome will also be better if you teach patients the right method.

According to Demchak, the majority of handheld, battery-operated home PBM devices are simple to use. A 20-ounce water bottle would be a good comparison for many. Health insurance normally does not cover them.

PBM is used in the practices of many healthcare professionals, as was already mentioned. Although photobiomodulation therapy is not certified or accredited in the US, Demchak argues that being a savvy consumer still pays off.

Use this checklist to fin a PBM provider:

  • Ask your present doctor if they offer light therapy for pain or if they can suggest a doctor.
  • To find out if the clinician you are thinking about offers light therapy for pain, contact them by phone or visit their website.
  • Make sure the clinician can explain the photobiomodulation procedure and how it will relieve your pain during the session using language you can understand.

What Does Light Therapy Feel Like?

Patients receiving light therapy, according to Demchak, report feeling nothing. Zero heat. Not a tingle.

“What you feel is the outcome,” he says. “You may feel immediate pain alleviation, your trigger point is released and it hurts less, or you have more motion as a result of that release. You might see a reduction in discomfort many hours after the therapy, depending on the problem being treated. Typically, a light therapy session lasts 5 to 10 minutes.

Why Should You Try Light Therapy?

Before you’ve tried anything else to treat your pain, light therapy is best, advises Demchak. “It would be preferable if you could manage your pain without using any drugs. It can be used immediately after an acute injury to aid in reducing acute inflammation and hasten the healing process.

Demchak says that light therapy can be combined with various forms of pain management “so you’re not using pain medications all the time or so you don’t go from NSAIDs to opioid-level medications.”

In addition, light treatment can aid in easing patients’ discomfort so they can engage in physical therapy or other forms of rehabilitation. If someone has a chronic pain condition, their ability to perform daily activities may improve.

Side Effects and Risks

There is a slight possibility of side effects since there are no established criteria for how long or strongly therapy should be used. Also, it is unknown how safe this operation will be in the long run. You run the risk of harming your skin or eyes if you use light therapy devices incorrectly or too frequently.

Though sometimes you can observe benefits immediately, it frequently takes weeks or months.

Red light treatment equipment used at home is safe but less potent than equipment used by professionals. Device quality varies, so you might not get the results you want from all of them. Clinical therapies with a skilled practitioner may provide more guarantee of successful outcomes with few to no side effects. This might necessitate more frequent visits, though.

Before attempting this therapy, those with sensitive skin or diabetes should consult their healthcare physician. Women who are pregnant should also ask their doctor for help.

Infrared Light Therapy

Infrared light therapy involves exposure to the proper intensity of infrared light so that the body can feel its benefits. The frequency at which infrared light works is invisible to the human eye. It is found alongside red light in the electromagnetic spectrum but penetrates deeper than light in the visible spectrum.

The lower the frequency of the infrared light, the more light can penetrate the tissue. Penetration allows infrared light to promote the body’s natural biological processes for pain relief and healing. Infrared light therapy can help release nitric oxide, inhibit pain signals, reduce inflammation, and upsurge circulation and blood flow to carry oxygen and nutrients to painful areas. This means it can treat pain indicators related to deep muscle tissue, bones, and joints.

The Science Behind Light Therapy

Red and infrared light therapy use harmless wavelengths of light to penetrate the skin and reach the muscles, nerves, and in some cases, the bones. The light is then absorbed by the cells in your body, especially the photoreceptors in those cells. Then it facilitates several metabolic processes, one of which is the creation of nitric oxide.

Nitric oxide helps relax your arteries, protects your body from free radicals by reducing oxidative stress, prevents platelet clotting, and keeps blood pressure in check. In other words, the molecule facilitates blood flow, which in turn helps your body carry oxygen and other nutrients to your cells. Ultimately, this process helps repair tissue and reduces pain and inflammation.

Unlike harmful ultraviolet light, which can damage skin and prevent cell regeneration, red and infrared are safe, gentle, and virtually painless. Due to safety and efficacy, red and infrared light therapy is used to treat a variety of other conditions as well.

How Does Light Therapy Device Treat Pain

What happens below the surface when you use a red or infrared light therapy device? The light energy penetrates through different layers of the skin to reach deep muscles and nerves. Your cells absorb energy from light and become more active. Blood flow also increases to the area to further support cell growth and regeneration, a combination of activities that help reduce inflammation and repair wounds or injuries.

Infrared light for pain and light therapy, in general, are relatively new concepts in the health and wellness community. As a result, the body of research on its effects is still in its infancy. However, the evidence showing the effectiveness of light therapy increases as interest in the technology increases. These are some of the promising results from the research of the scientific community on red and infrared light therapy.

The journal of Pain Research and Management published a study on infrared therapy for chronic low back pain that followed 40 patients for six years. The patients used portable devices that emitted light in the wavelength range of 800 to 1200 nm. They informed a significant reduction in pain without adverse effects.

Another study, published in the Turkish Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, looked at the impact of red light therapy on spondylitis or inflammatory arthritis of the spine. In the study, patients treated with red light therapy experienced significantly improved activity, function, and quality of life.

The journal Photochemistry and Photobiology published an article that examined the ability of infrared to stimulate nerves and promote wound healing. This study concluded that “nerve cells respond particularly well to infrared radiation.”

In Conclusion

While some individuals are still doubtful about the benefits of light therapy for pain, research has shown it is a viable treatment option for all types of conditions. Rarely does this type of treatment have side effects, which is why light therapy has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Whether used unaccompanied or in combination with other therapies like light therapy remains a safe and effective way to improve blood circulation and promote healing while relieving pain.