It seems far-fetched to think that simply shining a red light on your body can finally heal chronic pain. The idea that something this simple could be the answer after years of struggle sounds too good to be true. Yet anecdotal and scientifically-valid evidence of the benefits of red light therapy for pain is growing. Is there any truth behind these claims? Could red light therapy for pain actually work?
What is red light therapy for pain?
Red light therapy for pain is known by a number of different names, including:
- Low level laser or low level light therapy (LLLT)
- Low intensity light therapy (LILT)
- High intensity light therapy (HILT)
- Biostimulation (BIOS)
- Photonic stimulation
By any name, red light therapy for pain uses an infrared light to penetrate into the body’s tissues. Higher frequencies move deeper into the body, but generally the light penetrates the skin approximately two to ten millimeters deep. For chronic pain, wavelengths between 800 and 1200 nm are generally recognized as therapeutic among proponents of this treatment.
There is more than one type of red light therapy for pain. The two most common types of red light therapies are:
- Low intensity light therapy: Uses a Class III laser. Generally recognized as safe and poses little to no risk for adverse effects (burns, tissue damage, etc.). There is very little research on this type of therapy. Claims of efficacy are largely anecdotal.
- High intensity light therapy: Uses a Class IV laser. More scientifically-valid studies using this type of laser, but this laser poses more risks to both patient and clinician.
Does red light therapy for pain work?
The idea behind red light therapy for pain is that infrared light penetrates the skin without cutting it. There is evidence that infrared light stimulates mitochondrial functioning. The mitochondria is the part of the cell that stimulates healing and produces protein and collagen.
Recent research has shown that this type of therapy can work to help reduce inflammation. A triple-blind study of mice has shown that neuropathic pain due to inflammation was significantly decreased with the use of red light therapy.
Red light therapy for osteoarthritis
This help with inflammation can be especially powerful for patients suffering from pain due to inflammatory conditions like knee osteoarthritis (OA). A recent study comparing the effects of low intensity light therapy and high intensity light therapy (HILT) found that both were effective at decreasing pain and increasing function when combined with exercise (with HILT being slightly more effective).
Red light therapy for neck pain
High intensity laser therapy has also been proven effective at relieving chronic neck pain. A double-blind, randomized controlled study of 60 chronic neck pain patients found that high intensity light therapy increased range of motion, decreased pain, and improved functionality over six weeks when compared to placebo laser therapy. Both groups also used exercise in their treatments.
Red light therapy for back pain
Yet another study demonstrated that portable infrared therapy packs strapped to the back of the waist were effe