By Amrit Sidhu, Kinesiologist
What Is Laser Therapy?
The term “laser” is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Now, hearing that might make you think that lasers are dangerous, but this is not entirely true. A laser is simply just a device that produces light. Through science and technological innovation, we have been able to harness the power of light and use it towards the treatment of various conditions.
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT), also known as photobiomodulation or red-light therapy, is a non-invasive treatment that uses a single wavelength of light to provide positive outcomes in treatment. Specifically, low-level laser therapy uses red and infrared light which have a wavelength between 620-750 nm and 800-1000 nm respectively. These wavelengths of light can penetrate the skin and tissues and induce a physiological response to help with pain, inflammation and tissue repair.
How Does It Work?
The red and infrared light triggers biochemical changes within cells, which can be compared to the process of photosynthesis in plants where the photons of light are absorbed by cellular photoreceptors and trigger chemical changes. There are two main mechanisms of actions which results in positive outcomes with laser therapy.
- Red/infrared light improves mitochondrial function which is the structure in our cells that is responsible for creating energy. This energy is created in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Without enough ATP, we don’t function well. Laser therapy can help facilitate the production of ATP by clearing out nitric oxide (NO) which is a harmful roadblock in the process of ATP production within the mitochondria. This increased ATP or energy allows cells to function properly and result in positive outcomes such as reduced pain, increase tissue repair and reduce inflammation.
- The release of NO mentioned above also serves a function to help our bodies recover. More specifically, this compound is known to be a vasodilator within our bodies. This means that blood vessels in the targeted area expand promoting more blood flow and improved circulation. With red light therapy tissues and cells are able to receive more oxygen and other nutrients that are important in healing and recovery.
Musculo Skeletal Injuries or Pain
Low-lever laser therapy (LLLT) can be used for many acute and chronic musculoskeletal injuries ranging from minor to severe. These injuries include but are not limited to sprains, strains, tendinopathy, and back pain. Collagen is a key protein and constituent of many structures within our body such as muscles, ligaments tendons and even blood vessels. It is responsible for providing elastic qualities to tissues and gives strength to various structures. When a musculoskeletal injury occurs, collagen plays a vital role in optimal recovery and healing.
Red light therapy can stimulate fibroblasts, which are specialized cells in our bodies that synthesize collagen, to increase cellular function. Again, this is done by increasing ATP production within the mitochondria of fibroblasts that allow for increased energy to put towards collogen production. This is effectively able to reduce healing time and create an optimal environment for recovery. For example, a research study looking at the effectiveness of laser therapy in the treatment of acute neck pain found that participants experienced a decrease in subject reports of pain and increased range of motion in the neck.1 Another research study found that laser therapy is effective in providing symptomatic relief of pian in those suffering from chronic low back pain.2
Red light therapy also shows promising results for pain reduction related to arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a term coined for inflammation and swelling within joints that cause pain and stiffness. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis which occurs from wear and tear damage to cartilage between joints which results in bone grinding on bone. On the other hand, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the body’s connective tissue within joints. LLLT is an effective treatment in those suffering from different forms of arthritis as it can be used to stimulate collagen production to rebuild cartilage between joints and decrease inflammation by drawing more nutrients and oxygen to cells. Pain and stiffness associated with arthritis can be reduced significantly and sometimes relieved with red light therapy. A research study looking at laser therapy as a form of treatment for rheumatoid arthritis found that participants experienced a 70% reduction in pain, reduction in morning stiffness, and increased flexibility in fingers.3
Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injury
A newer area of research also shows that red light therapy could be implemented in concussion care and recovery. Current treatment options for concussion includes rest, systematic physical activity, and medications. However, lingering post-concussion symptoms and cognitive dysfunction from traumatic brain injury is an increasing concern. Recent studies have shown that an 8-week light therapy treatment program increases brain volumes, improve functional connectivity, increases cerebral blood flow and cognitive testing.4, 5 LLLT is a new therapy that could show promising results in those that sustain head injuries related to sports, car accidents or work accidents.
1 Konstantinovic, L. M., Cutovic, M. R., Milovanovic, A. N., Jovic, S. J., Dragin, A. S., Letic, M. D., & Miler, V. M. (2010). Low-level laser therapy for acute neck pain with radiculopathy: A double-blind placebo-controlled randomized study. Pain Medicine, 11(8), 1169–1178. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1526-4637.2010.00907.x
2 Morshedi, Hadi & Ali, Safari & Zeidi, Banafsheh. (2009). Low level laser therapy (LLLT) for chronic low back pain (LBP). European Journal of Scientific Research. 29. 1450-216.
3 Brosseau, L., Welch, V., Wells, G., Tugwell, P., de Bie, R., Gam, A., Harman, K., Shea, B., & Morin, M. (2000). Low level laser therapy for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis: a metaanalysis. The Journal of rheumatology, 27(8), 1961–1969.
4 Chao, L. L., Barlow, C., Karimpoor, M., & Lim, L. (2020). Changes in Brain Function and Structure After Self-Administered Home Photobiomodulation Treatment in a Concussion Case. Frontiers in Neurology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2020.00952
5 Hipskind, S. G., Grover, F. L., Fort, T. R., Helffenstein, D., Burke, T. J., Quint, S. A., Bussiere, G., Stone, M., & Hurtado, T. (2018). Pulsed Transcranial Red/Near-Infrared Light Therapy Using Light-Emitting Diodes Improves Cerebral Blood Flow and Cognitive Function in Veterans with Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury: A Case Series. Photomedicine and Laser Surgery. https://doi.org/10.1089/pho.2018.4489