Chronic pain can be debilitating. Impacting not only how we work, function, and live but our relationships as well. Finding treatment options that are safe and effective isn’t always easy. We are constantly bombarded with ads that claim a certain product or intervention will help. It sounds crazy that just shining a light on the area of pain can actually be a viable alternative.
But it can.
LED (light emitting diode) light therapy has been shown to improve a variety of conditions, from depression, poor circulation, wound healing, wrinkles, TMJ dysfunction, to pain management. Wavelength is the key. Green, red and blue lights were shown to produce antinociception or analgesia and reversed neuropathic pain. But in rats this effect was completely blocked when their eyes were covered, implying the analgesic effects are through the visual system that’s then mediated through our own endogenous opioids and cannabinoid systems.
It was originally used by astronauts on long term space missions for pain and injury interventions. Now anyone, anywhere, can take advantage of this safe and natural method of pain relief.
What is light therapy?
Just like plants, we too absorb light particles or photons that we then transform into energy via adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This is the form of energy we require to keep all our metabolic processes functioning at their best. It improves cellular performance and encourages repair and regeneration of all our tissues, by boosting energy on the cellular level so that the body’s natural healing abilities are enhanced. LED light therapy produces a biochemical effect in cells that strengthens mitochondria- the powerhouse of all cells. This is where energy or ATP is created. With more energy, cells function, repair and rejuvenate more efficiently.
The human eye can only see wavelengths in the 400-700 range nanometer range. We can’t see infrared light that’s approximately 780-3000 nm.
LED light therapy uses various wavelengths that correspond to different visible colors.
Each color penetrates the skin at different depths.
- Blue light affects the uppermost layer of your skin.
- Yellow light penetrates deeper.
- Red light travels further into your skin.
- Near-infrared light penetrates deepest.
How does it work?
Light therapy penetrates through the skin to muscles and nerves. Those cells absorb the energy from that light and become more active. Blood flow increases, which supports cellular regrowth and regeneration, reduces inflammation and helps to repair damaged areas from strains, sprains, and trauma.
Studies have shown light therapy helps in a variety of ways
Improves blood flow by inducing angiogenesis- the formation of new blood vessels- and triggers the release of nitric oxide (NO) a natural vasodilator. This increases the size and number of our smallest blood vessels, capillaries, which then allow for more nutrients and oxygen to surge to inflamed tissues. This allows for more efficient elimination of waste and toxins. Ultimately this helps to relax muscle spasms, improve flexibility and movement and even break up scar tissue.
Reduce inflammation by not only improving blood flow and the efficiency with which we remove toxins and waste but by also altering the macrophages within cells. These detect, engulf and eliminate dead, inflamed or infected cells. There are two types of macrophages, M1 and M2. M1 promote inflammation and M2 diminishes it and repairs the damage inflammation causes. Red light therapy has been shown to change the macrophage phenotype from M1 to M2s, thereby improving healing.
Triggers homeosis, the process of temporarily causing stress to a system in order to provoke a response. Fight or flight acts this way to cause an immediate stress reaction that can save lives. With light therapy, a mild and temporary oxidative stress is created that causes an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Long term this can be harmful and even lead to cancer, but small rises can jump start the body’s natural defenses by activating its healing mechanisms which then strengthens and improves tissue function.
Increases collagen, the major building block of all types of tissue. Certain light waves have been shown to increase collagen production so that a stronger structure results.
Is it dangerous?
No. Light therapy has been referred to as “radiation therapy” which makes it easy to confuse with the dangers of radiological procedures or even sun exposure. This is not the case. The word radiation simply means any energy that is from any source e.g a radio or lightbulb. Light therapy produces a non ionizing form of energy that does not impact the structure of atoms or damage tissue. This differs significantly from laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy for tightening skin in the face or neck…which is intended to cause damage to the surface of the skin to induce a response to repair the affected tissue.
Always consult your provider before starting any individual treatment programs.
When should it be used?
It can be used anywhere, except for the eyes, to treat acute or chronic conditions:
- Neck, shoulder, low back pain from sitting at a computer all day long
- Muscle soreness after a workout
- Knee stiffness, arthritis. One study found red and infrared light therapy decreased osteoarthritis pain in the knees by over 50%.
- Feet and hand pain and swelling
- Acute sprains, strains, ligament damage, and tendinitis. In one study a majority of university athletes treated for 15 months with 830nm LED therapy noted significant reduction in pain from the above issues and improved rates of healing.
- Treat dental issues. It has been shown to reduce the levels of harmful bacteria while helping different parts of the tooth and gum to regenerate.
- Neuropathy. Red light therapy has been shown to stimulate the mitochondria in cells to produce more energy, helping stimulate the regrowth of vessels so areas get more nutrients and oxygen and nerves to decrease pain and improve function and sensation.
How often should it be used:
With at home devices, treatments can vary from 15-25 minutes depending on the device, area and body part involved. Start with one session then increase to two a day.
LED light therapy can be a wonderful, benign, adjuvant therapy for a multitude of issues.