Am I A Candidate for Light Therapy?

Light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation (PBM) is a simple, efficient, and cost-effective treatment for both acute and chronic pain. 

Light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation (PBM) was approved by the FDA for the treatment of pain in 2002 but it's been around for 50 years. It can be used to stimulate healing, increase tissue regrowth, and reduce pain and inflammation.

Just about anyone in pain is a candidate for light therapy, according to Timothy Demchak, PhD, ATC, professor of applied medicine and rehabilitation at Indiana State University in Terra Haute, Indiana. He uses it on himself for muscle soreness, headaches, and trigger points and on his children for muscle soreness, shoulder, neck, and injury pain. His wife was skeptical at first—and the therapy has been slow to catch on in the US—but even she has become convinced of light therapy’s benefits for relieving pain. 

What is Light Therapy? 

Light therapy has been around for more than 50 years, and has gone by various names over the years, including low-level laser therapy, cold/cool laser, soft laser, and low-power laser therapy. The agreed upon scientific term for light therapy is photobiomodulation (PBM).  

Light therapy is currently used to:1

  • Stimulate healing 
  • Increase tissue regrowth 
  • Reduce pain and inflammation  

Light therapy is safe. There are no known side effects of photobiomodulation. It will not harm your skin, like sunlight. It does not cause skin cancer. But users should wear safety googles to protect their eyes, Demchak says. 

Some forms of light therapy are used to treat depression and skin conditions, such as acne but photobiomodulation can also be used to treat pain. 

Light therapy to treat pain can be performed in a clinic setting or at home with the right device and training—more on this later. 

Photobiomodulation is also offered in the form of whole body pods that look like tanning beds.2 One such device, the NovoThor, is offered at more than 100 clinics worldwide and used by organizations such as the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions.

Is Light Therapy A Legitimate Treatment for Pain? 

Light therapy was approved by the FDA for pain control in 2002, but it is used far more widely in Europe and Australia than in the United States. Demchak attributes this to a knowledge gap. “Ten years ago, when I started treating patients with light therapy, a lot of practitioners didn’t know about it or they tried it and it didn’t work because they weren’t using the proper technique,” he says.  

That has changed. For one, the science has caught up with the positive results practitioners have been seeing in their patients for years. In recent years there’s been progress in understanding how light works at a molecular, cellular, and tissue-based level. According to Michael R. Hamblin, PhD, 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.

With this understanding, photobiomodulation has made “major 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,” says Hamblin.4 

In the US, a variety of health care professionals use light therapy to treat pain, including athletic trainers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, dentists, massage therapists, and veterinarians, Demchak says.  

“The biggest use is in dentistry and chiropractic practices right now,” Demchak explains, “but there a lot of athletic trainers and physical therapists starting to use it.” 

How Does Light Therapy Work to Treat Pain? 

The answer is in the term photobiomodulation, a long word that describes what light therapy does.  

Photo means light. Bio means life. Modulation means to regulate or adjust. 

In simplest terms, photobiomodulation, or light therapy, works by stimulating or inhibiting processes in your body that affect healing or pain. 

As Demchak explains, light interacts with skin in four ways: transmission through the skin, absorption into the skin, diffusion, and reflection away from the skin. “The light that is transmitted through the skin and reaches the target tissue, such as an injured muscle, has an effect,” he explains. “Low doses of light have a stimulatory effect —which accelerates tissue healing and an increase in blood flow. A high dose of light has an inhibitory effect—which is primarily used therapeutically to inhibit pain.” 

In light therapy, a light source—either a laser or light emitting diode (LED) − is held near to or in contact with the skin over the area of pain. Pain is decreased when less of the pain signal reaches the brain. Therefore, treating several points along the pathway of the nerve including the nerve root (where the nerve enters the spine) can increase the treatment effects and result in a greater reduction in pain.    

As the light reaches the skin, it is absorbed by light-sensitive molecules (chromophores) inside the mitochondria—the “powerhouses of the cells.” This triggers a complex chain of reactions that can:

  • Speed wound healing and tissue regeneration 
  • Increase circulation 
  • Reduce acute inflammation 
  • Help restore normal cellular function 
  • Reduce acute and chronic pain 

What Kinds of Pain Does Light Therapy Treat? 

Demchak says light therapy can be used on any part of the body, for nearly any type of acute or chronic pain. 

Photobiomodulation has been used to treat a variety of pain conditions including:

ACUTE PAIN FROM

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

CHRONIC PAIN (pain that lasts more than 3 months) 

Light Therapy Devices—Try Before You Buy 

Considering that people with chronic pain may have tried (and failed) many treatments, it’s important to be good, vigilant health care consumers, says Dr. Demchak.  

PBM devices are readily available without prescription online at prices ranging from $10 to $3,000, Demchak says. Don’t be daunted by the thousands PBM products online. Instead, try one out first.  

Use this checklist before purchasing a home light therapy device: 

  • Try it at a clinician’s office. Don’t buy it if it doesn’t work for you.  
  • Verify there’s research saying this specific device relieves pain in your specific condition. 
  • Verify the device is FDA-approved for pain relief. 

“The best way to find out if light therapy will lessen your pain is to try it out at a clinic that performs PBM,” Demchak says. He cautions: “I would not encourage someone to get a device at home unless they’ve tried it in a clinic and had success with it beforehand,” he says. “Part of that is the clinician can teach them how to use it properly at home. Technique does matter. If you teach patients the proper technique, they’ll have a better outcome as well.” 

Most home PBM devices are battery operatedhandheld, and easy to use, Demchak explains. Many are around the size of a 20-ounce water bottle. They are usually not covered by health insurance.

As noted earlier, a variety of healthcare professionals use PBM in their practices. In the US, there is no certificate or accreditation for photobiomodulation treatment, but, again, being a wise consumer pays off, Demchak says

Use this checklist to find a PBM provider:

  1. Ask your current provider if they perform light therapy for pain or can recommend a provider.
  2. Phone or check the website of the clinician you are considering to see if they provide light therapy for pain.
  3. At the appointment, make sure the clinician can explain the photobiomodulation process and how it will help your pain, in language you can understand.

What Does Light Therapy Feel Like?

According to Demchak, patients undergoing light therapy don’t feel anything. No heat. No tingling.

What you feel is the outcome—you may feel instant pain relief or your trigger point is released and therefore it doesn’t hurt as much, or you have more motion because of that release,” he explainsDepending on the condition being treated, you many feel the decrease in pain several hours after the treatment. The light therapy session usually lasts about 5 to 10 minutes.   

When Should You Try Light Therapy?

An ideal time to try light therapy is before you’ve tried anything else for your pain, Demchak says. “If you can treat your pain with light and not have to use any medications that would be preferable. You can use it in acute injury immediately to help speed up the acute inflammation process, so you get to the healing phase faster.

Light therapy can be used in conjunction with other pain treatments, Demchak explains, “so youre not using pain medications all the time or so you don’t go from NSAIDs to opioid-level medications.”

In addition, light therapy can help reduce patients’ pain so they are able to do physical therapy or other rehabilitation, he says.  In the case of chronic pain conditions, the reduction in pain may allow them to complete activities of daily living.

 

Updated on: 08/18/21
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