Red Light Therapy for Pain Relief: How it Works, Benefits, and Alternatives
A global estimate from Boston University tells us 1.5 billion people suffer from chronic pain worldwide. Trauma, chronic back pain, and arthritis are the most common, and they’re often debilitating. For many of us, pain relief is a daily necessity.
There are plenty of prescription drugs and over-the-counter solutions out there. However, synthetic pills don’t tackle the actual problem; they only suppress the pain. For those who need an alternative to prescription medications (or treatment to amplify their results), red light therapy is one of the best choices.
How does red light therapy work?
Red light therapy (also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT), photobiomodulation, or phototherapy) is a therapeutic treatment modality that utilizes low-energy LEDs or lasers to stimulate cellular activity. It works on the principle that exposure to certain wavelengths of red and near-infrared light can stimulate ATP production (i.e., energy generation) in your cells’ mitochondria.
The history of red light therapy dates back to the early 1960s when Endre Mester, a Hungarian physician, discovered its wound-healing properties. Mester found that low-level laser light helped mice heal their wounds more quickly.
Over the next several decades, clinical and scientific interest in light therapy has grown significantly, leading to numerous studies investigating its therapeutic potential. Today, red light therapy treats a broad range of conditions and serves numerous purposes, including:
- Reducing inflammation and promoting tissue repair
- Stimulating collagen production to reduce wrinkles, scars, and signs of aging
- Improving circulation and reducing oxidative stress
- Relieving pain and promoting wound healing
- Enabling hair growth for those with androgenic alopecia
Emerging clinical research points to the efficacy of red light therapy in treating mental health disorders. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) sufferers, for example, have reported a significant reduction in symptoms after one or two red light therapy sessions. Those with clinical depression have reported similar effects, too.
Red Light Therapy as a Treatment for Pain Relief
There are countless sources of chronic pain, including inflammatory disorders, trauma, and repetitive stress injuries. Red light therapy decreases inflammation and triggers the release of endorphins, your body’s natural “feel-good” hormones.
Aside from its anti-inflammatory effects, red light therapy increases the production of nitric oxide, a vasodilator and signaling molecule. Nitric oxide widens blood vessels to improve circulation, enhancing the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to injured tissues. Since it’s also non-invasive and has few side effects, it appeals to those who can’t or don’t want to take medications.
Musculoskeletal pain affects the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones. Conditions associated with this type of pain are numerous and can range from localized issues, like tendinitis, to systemic diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis. They impact 1.71 billion people around the world—statistically speaking, if you know five people, one of them has a musculoskeletal condition.
- Arthritis (an umbrella term comprising 100+ conditions and diseases) is one of the most prevalent musculoskeletal conditions. The two most common forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis (from aging and wear-and-tear) and rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disorder), both result in joint inflammation and subsequent pain.
- Fibromyalgia causes widespread pain, fatigue, and cognitive difficulties. Though the exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, most have concluded it involves various genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
- Lower back pain is the leading cause of disability in 160 countries. It stems from all sorts of conditions, including herniated discs, spinal stenosis, and degenerative disc disease.
In all the above cases, red light therapy works the same: by reducing inflammation and improving circulation to enhance the healing process, reducing discomfort, and improving the patient’s quality of life.
“Neuropathy” refers to any kind of pain caused by damage to the sensory nervous system. Examples include diabetic neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia (nerve pain after shingles), and sciatica (nerve pain that travels down the leg).
Neuropathic pain results from damage or malfunction of the peripheral and/or central nervous systems. Common causes are diabetes, chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injury.
Red light therapy works on neuropathic pain similarly to musculoskeletal pain—by decreasing inflammation and promoting healing at the cellular level, red light therapy can potentially help to relieve the pain and discomfort associated with neuropathy.
Post-operative pain can be effectively managed with red light therapy. Accelerating wound healing and reducing inflammation can help patients recover faster and with less discomfort.
Common operations to use red light therapy after include:
- Plastic surgery: Burns, trauma, or cosmetic surgeries such as liposuction, breast augmentation, or facelifts
- Orthopedic surgery: Joint replacement surgery, spinal fusion, and corrective orthopedic surgery
- Oral & dental surgery: Tooth extraction, wisdom tooth removal, and oral surgeries
- Gynecological & urological surgery: Hysterectomy, prostate surgery, and bladder surgeries
Tendinitis and Bursitis
Tendons connect muscle to bone, and bursae are fluid-filled sacs between the two. Usually, it is caused by repetitive motion and an accumulation of microtrauma (e.g., running, typing). When the tendons and bursae become inflamed from overuse, it can cause a great deal of pain.
A study of seven participants with Achilles tendinitis found that red light therapy reduced their pain and inflammation. The study suggested that a dose of 5.4 Joules per point of red light therapy could effectively treat induced Achilles tendonitis to alleviate discomfort. Another 2016 study reported that participants suffering from Achilles tendonitis showed improved function after being treated with red light therapy.
Migraines and Tension Headaches
Between half and two-thirds of the world’s population experienced a headache in the last year. Additionally, it’s believed that 1.7% to 4% of the global population experiences headaches at least 15 days per month. The implications of headaches and migraines extend far past the individual, affecting society as a whole.
The 2019 Global Burden of Disease study revealed headaches were the third leading cause of disability resulting in lower quality of life. Migraines were responsible for 88.2% of all headache disorders. A 2019 study involving three patients with chronic migraines showed promising results for red light therapy:
- A 42-year-old male who had been experiencing migraines twice a week for a decade saw his migraines cease for two weeks after receiving three treatments over four weeks.
- A 53-year-old woman who had been suffering from migraines two to three times a week for 30 years had no migraines during and for 90 days after her course of ten treatments over seven weeks.
- A 72-year-old woman, who had been enduring migraines three to five times a week for 59 years recorded no migraines during her eight-week treatment period, which involved a frequency of twice a week for the first four weeks and then once a week for the following four weeks.
Benefits of Treating Your Chronic Pain With Red Light Therapy
The benefits of red light therapy extend far beyond pain relief. It’s a versatile treatment with demonstrable promise in various health and wellness areas.
- Reduced inflammation. Inflammation is a natural response to injury and disease, but chronic inflammation impacts individuals’ ability to carry out daily tasks. Red light therapy helps reduce inflammation by promoting circulation and cellular repair, which can alleviate symptoms in numerous conditions, from arthritis to skin disorders.
- Enhanced tissue repair and wound healing. Red light stimulates cellular activity and can accelerate the healing process. It promotes collagen production, increases the formation of new blood vessels, and stimulates the release of growth factors. These effects can enhance tissue repair and speed up wound healing.
- Skin health and anti-aging. By stimulating collagen production and increasing circulation, red light therapy can help improve skin tone and texture, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and combat other signs of aging. It also helps manage skin conditions like acne, rosacea, and psoriasis.
- Improved mental health. Some studies suggest that red light therapy can boost mood and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Better physical performance. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts can benefit from red light therapy’s ability to aid muscle recovery and reduce inflammation.
- Hair regrowth. For various forms of hair loss, red light therapy can stimulate hair follicles, promoting growth and thickness.
- Safety and ease of application. Red light therapy is safe and non-invasive, making it one of the most viable treatment options for most people. Since it can be applied at home, those who use red light treatment can do so at a time that fits into their schedule.
When to Avoid Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy isn’t a good idea for everyone. In some instances, it can even be dangerous. Here’s a list of people who should avoid red light therapy:
- Those who are taking photosensitizing medications (isotretinoin, sulfonamides, and thiazide). Since these drugs increase sensitivity to light, they can lead to phototoxicity and burning if used alongside red light therapy.
- Pregnant or nursing women. Red light therapy hasn’t been studied for safety on pregnant women, so it’s best to avoid it during pregnancy.
- People who suffer from eye conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. In cases of misapplication, red light therapy can cause eye damage, so those with pre-existing eye problems should avoid it.
- Anyone with a history of skin cancer. Red light therapy is not known to cause cancer, but it can make existing lesions worse. People with a history of skin cancer should consult their doctor before starting treatments.
4 Alternatives to Red Light Therapy for Pain Relief
Although there are lots of people whose medical history or restrictions eliminate their candidacy for red light therapy, there are plenty of other pain relief options. In fact, most people using red light therapy use it in combination with other treatments. These are some of the most commonly used alternatives to red light therapy:
1. Massage Therapy
Once considered more of a “luxury,” massage therapy has recently been gaining acceptance as a viable medical treatment, thanks to its ability to improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and release endorphins (your body’s natural pain relievers).
Studies have shown its effectiveness in alleviating back, hands, neck, and knees pain. One Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice study revealed that individuals who received weekly hand massages and practiced self-massage at home experienced reduced hand pain, improved grip strength, and improved sleep quality. They also reported lower levels of anxiety and depression compared to the control group.
2. Cannabinoids and Cannabis Products
Within the last two decades, research and overall acceptance of cannabis have both seen a sharp increase. Despite its ongoing controversy, many are now turning to cannabinoids or cannabis products like CBD oil as an alternative form of pain relief.
Cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which regulates your sleep, appetite, and immune response. Multiple clinical studies suggest that CBD can help relieve both neuropathic and inflammatory pain.
Aside from CBD, there are other compounds that show promise in treating pain relief, including the HHC cannabinoid—a new, semi-synthetic compound created by treating THC with hydrogen molecules.
Nowadays, products fortified with cannabinoids are available across the country. Everything from topical creams and gels to edible gummies and tinctures is easily accessible online and in specialty retailers.
3. Cold and Heat Therapy
Heat therapy is one of the oldest and most commonly used forms of pain relief, and there’s a reason why it’s still around today. As one meta-analysis of 59 American and Chinese studies explains, heat packs can reduce inflammation and muscle spasms, improve blood circulation, relieve stiffness, and help muscles relax. Cold therapy can help reduce inflammation and reduce pain. Since heat and cold therapy can result in tissue damage and burning, both should be used with caution. Use heat therapy when:
- You have muscle aches and pains, such as those caused by fibromyalgia or arthritis
- You want to increase your flexibility and mobility
- You want to reduce swelling, soreness, and stiffness.
Use cold therapy when:
- You have an acute injury (sprains, strains, bruises) that requires immediate pain relief.
- You’re experiencing inflammation due to a recent (in the last 72 hours) injury or medical condition.
4. Acupuncture or Acupressure Therapy
Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into the body’s pressure points in order to promote healing via activating endorphins, which are our body’s natural pain relievers. It’s one of the oldest forms of pain relief and is still used today by everyone from athletes to the elderly.
Acupressure is like acupuncture without the needles. Instead, an acupressure therapist applies gentle pressure to specific areas of your body for pain relief. It’s especially effective for treating headaches and migraines because it reduces inflammation and promotes relaxation.
Red light therapy is among the most convenient and promising pain relief treatments. The fact that it is non-invasive, painless, and relatively accessible makes it an excellent option for anyone who wants to rehabilitate themselves after a surgery or manage their chronic pain without the laundry list of side effects prescription drugs entail. Always remember to consult a doctor before trying any of these alternative treatments, and always use red light therapy as intended.