Laser therapy is a relatively new method of pain control. Because it is so new, it’s still somewhat untested. Current evidence is mixed, but laser therapy as pain control may warrant further research in the future.

The use of lasers in medicine is increasing, and one potential use of lasers is low-level laser therapy.

Low-level laser therapy can be referred to by several different names, including:

  • Cold laser therapy
  • Low-power laser therapy (LPLT)
  • Low-energy laser therapy
  • Low-intensity laser
  • Monochromatic infrared light energy (MIRE) therapy

While there are different types of low-level laser therapies, all of them work similarly. A low-energy laser penetrates soft tissues to cause a miniscule increase in temperature. The laser itself does not generate heat; rather, it emits infrared (or near-infrared) light to stimulate the very slight increase in temperature.

Indicated uses of low-level laser therapy include everything from tuberculosis to smoking cessation to musculoskeletal conditions, although there’s little solid evidence of its efficacy. Low-level laser therapy is currently being used as a method of pain control, despite the fact that it’s not fully understood.

It’s unclear how or why low-level laser therapy functions as pain relief, but the leading theory involves a photobiostimulation effect.

The current theory is that the light from low-level laser therapy can penetrate deeply into tissues and create a photobiostimulation effect. According to the Back Clinics of Canada, this photobiostimulation effect can have the following results:

“When deep penetrating photonic energy is focused on specific cellular (soft) tissue, increased amounts of ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate) are produced as a result. ATP is the substance responsible for cellular energy production.”

Potential benefits from this photobiostimulation effect include:

  • Reduced swelling, stiffness, pain, and muscle spasms
  • Increased circulation
  • Increased cellular function
  • Improved transport of water, oxygen, and nutrients to the injured area

Results of most current studies regarding low-level laser therapy have been mixed or inconclusive.

However, this may be because most of these studies have been small. To produce reliable results one way or the other, larger studies are needed. Additionally, there is no standardized method of treatment. For instance, the wavelength, duration, and other parameters of low-level laser therapy are uncertain and inconsistent between studies.

The evidence that’s been produced so far concerning low-level laser therapy for musculoskeletal conditions, such as back pain, is mostly neutral. One study produced results that suggested low-level laser therapy might help improve range of motion in individuals with hand osteoarthritis. Another study found that low-level laser therapy might, if used at the correct wavelength, be capable of helping people recover from elbow tendinopathy.

Studies focusing on back pain and rheumatoid arthritis found that low-level laser therapy had little or no effect. However, another group of researchers found that low-level laser therapy plus exercise is more effective at improving range of motion and disability, as compared to either low-level laser therapy or exercise alone.

Low-level light therapy, when applied at acupuncture points, is sometimes referred to as laser acupuncture.

Researchers from China Medical University and Da-Chien General Hospital in Taiwan recently put laser acupuncture to the test. Participants were given either traditional (manual) acupuncture or laser acupuncture.

The researchers noted that laser therapy does have some advantages over manual acupuncture. Specifically, laser acupuncture is painless, safe, dosage adjustable, aseptic, and user-friendly. However, the results of the study indicated that manual acupuncture provides stronger pain relief than laser acupuncture.

Although the benefits of low-level light therapy are unclear or unknown, undergoing this type of therapy is painless and simple.

Low-level light therapy involves the use of a wand-like instrument that emits red light. The instrument is held against the targeted area of the body, such as the back. Pulses of light are emitted. There is no pain, no need for numbing medication, and no recovery time. Low-level light therapy is non-invasive and non-toxic, with no known side effects. Undergoing low-level light therapy is, quite simply, as difficult as allowing someone to blink a flashlight at the painful area of your body.

Low-level light therapy is FDA-approved for pain therapy. The practitioner who is applying the therapy should perform an exam, ask lots of questions, and potentially carry out some tests before performing the therapy. This is so that the practitioner can diagnose the underlying condition prior to administering the low-level laser therapy, since there are a few conditions for which this therapy is contraindicated. For instance, people with cancer or thyroid issues, or women who are pregnant, should not undergo laser therapy.

Because low-level light therapy is so devoid of risk or side effects, it might be worth investigating if you’re experiencing persistent back pain that resists other pain management techniques. However, if you do pursue low-level light therapy, keep in mind that the clinical evidence has been mixed. There is no guarantee of relief from back pain, or any other type of pain.

To find a laser therapist, ask your physician or other medical professionals. Chiropractors and physical therapists, in particular, tend to work with low-level laser therapy. Alternatively, check online databases.

Have you ever tried low-level laser therapy?

Image by winnifredxoxo via Flickr

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