The first time I heard about laser therapy, a type of light therapy for pain, a veterinarian recommended it for my cat, who had osteoarthritis in her hip. My knowledge of lasers at the time was limited to a vague idea that they were used to cut tissue in surgery. I couldn’t imagine how that would help with pain so I didn’t bother to investigate any further. I treated my cat with glucosamine, chondroitin and fish oil and she did better for a while.
Several years went by. I was finishing up my book, The Truth About Chronic Pain Treatments: The Best and Worst Strategies For Becoming Pain Free, when I noticed that a couple of chiropractors were taking out full page ads in my local newspaper touting a miraculous cure for neuropathy. I wanted my book to be comprehensive so I decided to investigate. What I found was amazing.
I learned that there are two kinds of lasers used for medical purposes. High power lasers are used to cut through tissue; low level lasers have the opposite effect—they stimulate tissue repair. In low level laser therapy (LLLT), a light is applied to an area of the body to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and promote tissue regeneration. The light is usually a laser (concentrated light) or LED (more diffuse light) in the red or near infrared spectrum. It’s typically applied to the injured area for a very short time, generally a minute or so in each relevant area, a few times a week for a few weeks. The effect has been compared to photosynthesis, in which the absorbed light causes a chemical change in the tissue.
The process by which low level lasers promote healing is called photomodulation. Three levels of effects have been identified.
- Primary tissue effects are direct chemical effects on cells. LLLT increases the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel our cells use for energy. The more ATP available to our cells, the faster we heal. LLLT also increases the permeability of cell membranes, which allows waste products to be removed and nutrition to be absorbed into the cells more efficiently.
- Secondary effects are chemical chain reactions that occur in response to the changes in the cells. LLLT secondary effects include anti-inflammatory effects, decreases in nerve irritability, and an increase in circulation in the area of injury or chronic pain.
- Tertiary effects are whole-body effects from the treatment and include increased immune cell production, increased production of endorphins (the body’s own painkillers), and improved nerve function.
There are currently more than 400 large randomized double-blind placebo-controlled human studies of LLLT that have been published worldwide, as well as more than 4,000 scientific studies investigating the underlying mechanisms that contribute to its local and systemic effects. Positive results have been reported for a very broad range of conditions, including the following:
- Wound healing
- Back and neck pain
- Muscle fatigue
- Peripheral nerve injuries
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Spinal cord injuries
- Postherpetic neuralgia (lingering pain after shingles)
LLLT speeds up healing significantly in acute injuries and substantially reduces or eliminates chronic pain. Effects are long lasting. There are no negative effects.
After interviewing a few people about laser therapy, including an MD who raved about all the successes he had with using LLLT on his chronic pain patients, I decided I had to have one for myself. My cat wasn’t doing so well at that point and I was having a nasty problem I’d been ignoring—plantar fibromatosis (benign hard tumors and inflammation in the arch of my foot). I didn’t have the time to take my cat to the vet several times a week and myself to a chiropractor multiple times a week. Even though I negotiated a deeply discounted price on a slightly used unit, it was still quite expensive, but I decided it was worth it and began using it on myself and my cat.
My cat loved it! She had stopped jumping on anything, but, after a couple of treatments, when she saw me take out the device and sit down she would jump up on my lap. I had to hide from her when I wanted to use the laser on myself because I couldn’t keep her off my lap. It seemed to make her more comfortable. She was definitely moving and jumping around more than before. Sadly, after a short time my cat, who was 17 years old, died of kidney failure. I’ve continued to use the laser on my foot and the tumors are shrinking. Walking is a lot more comfortable.
LLLT medical devices are FDA approved for “the temporary relief of pain.” According to the FDA’s website, this approval was based on “the presentation of clinical data to support such claims”. Despite this, and the extraordinary body of scientific evidence available on safety and effectiveness, most US insurance companies and Medicare claim LLLT is investigational, experimental, or unproven and refuse to pay for this treatment for any condition. Unfortunately, this is the case for many helpful therapies for chronic pain.
Chiropractors and physical therapists are most likely to be offering LLLT. There are a few enlightened MDs who are using this technology. If you can manage it financially, it’s definitely worth a try. It can’t hurt!
For more information on low level laser therapy and other alternative pain treatments, please see my book, The Truth About Chronic Pain Treatments: The Best and Worst Strategies For Becoming Pain Free.