The Science Behind How Laser Reduces Pain and Inflammation and Speeds Recovery and Healing

You may have seen us post about the laser therapies we offer and wonder how the heck it works. With all the “woo” out there, we are committed to finding the most science based and proven technologies for our clients.

It’s important that you, as a consumer, feel completely comfortable with your health care choices. That’s where this post comes in: we’re going to try and break down the science behind therapeutic laser therapy so that you can understand it better.

We have two different kinds of lasers in our office.

These are both non-invasive, non-surgical, drug-free approaches to reducing inflammation, reducing pain, and increasing healing and recovery on a cellular level.

One is a handheld Class IV Warm Deep Tissue Laser.

The other is a whole body laser pod. (Think of it like a bed you lie in with a clam-shell that comes over you so as to light up both sides at once.)

They both emit the same wavelengths of therapeutic light. (More on what that means in a moment.)

The hand-held is like a fire hose delivering concentrated light very quickly in a small area; the other delivers the dosage of light more slowly but all over the entire body.

Let’s break down the science.

Low Level Laser Therapy has an effect on the body called a “photochemical effect”. Photo, meaning “light”, chemical meaning the chain of events that it kicks off on a cellular level.

If you think back to eighth grade biology, your body is made up of cells. You can probably picture the wall, the nucleus, and the squiggly round bits. Those squiggly bits are mitochondria.

The mitochondria, the powerhouse or sometimes called “engine” of the cell, absorbs certain wavelengths of light.

What is a wavelength of light?

Think about the rainbow or “ROY G BIV”. The light that is beyond violet, ultra violet, is the “bad radiation” such as UVA and UVB rays, x-rays, and other dangerous cancer-causing rays. We want to avoid this wavelength of light.

The light that is on the opposite side of the visible spectrum is infra-red. This is where most of the therapeutic healing light comes from.

Inside the Cell

A specialized receptor in the cell is sensitive to light. The little receptor that soaks up the light in the mitochondria is called a cytochrome c oxidase (Cox) protein.

Our lasers emit the healing spectrum of light deep within the tissues, for the mitochondria of those cells and tissues to soak up.

So what’s the benefit of this?

ATP Production

When cells are stressed due to injury, disease, and even aging, the mitochondria produces a substance called nitric oxide (NO). Nitric oxide competes with oxygen in the cell. When that happens, the cell becomes much less efficient in producing Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP).

ATP-or Adenosine Triphosphate-is the primary energy carrier in all living organisms located on our Earth. When the cell requires energy it forms and then breaks down Adenosine Triphosphate.

When the balance gets off within the cell, an overproduction of reactive oxygen species, or ROS, happens and that process leads to oxidative stress.

Oxidative Stress, Inflammation, and Anti-Oxidants

High amounts of oxidative stress lead to inflammation. Inflammation, we now know, leads to many disease processes, as well as cell death via the gene transcription factor NF-Kb.

This “oxidative stress” is something many have heard about thanks to health products, so-called superfoods, supplements, and the marketing geniuses behind them.

Health minded folks tend to try and increase the amount of antioxidants in their diets and even topically use anti-oxidants in their skin care. Green tea, coffee, berries, and colorful foods often have a high amount of antioxidants. Vitamin C creams and other topics allow it to be absorbed from the outside in.

ROS and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) are involved in signaling pathways from the mitochondria to the nuclei. ROS are very very small and include oxygen ions such as superoxide, free radicals such as hydroxyl radical, hydrogen peroxide, and organic peroxides. ROS form as a natural byproduct of the normal metabolism of oxygen and have important roles in cell signaling, regulating nucleic acid synthesis, protein synthesis, enzyme activation, and cell cycle progression. Laser therapy has been shown to produce a shift in overall cell redox potential in the direction of greater oxidation. These cytosolic responses in turn induce transcriptional changes. Several transcription factors are regulated by changes in cellular redox states. The most important is nuclear factor B (NF-B). Laser therapy is instrumental in causing transcription of protective and stimulatory gene products.

1968 R F Furchgott started some of his research on nitric oxide that in 1998 won him the Nobel Prize! Researchers since then have confirmed over and again that light influences the local production or release of NO thru the effect of NO on cyclic guanine monophosphate (cGMP).

When the appropriate dose of light is given to the body it dissociates the nitric oxide (NO) and allows the oxygen back in, so ATP is restored and produced and the oxidation is reduced.

Heal 4-10x Faster

Once the mitochondria’s normal function is restored the cell metabolism improves and the client is able to heal at a rate up to 4-10x faster.

Circulation, which is where the blood flow brings oxygen, nutrition, hydration, and removes metabolic waste products from tissues, is greatly increased not only in the injured site but also where the light is shone.

This also helps to increase lymphatic drainage as well. Your lymphatic system is often referred to as the “immune system”. Unlike the circulatory system which has a heart to pump it, the lymphatic system relies on deep breathing and large muscle movement.

Pain Relief

The body also releases something called endorphins which are natural pain-killers produced by the body itself. This helps to reduce the sensation of pain in an injured or stiff, sore, achy muscle while the injury heals.

A-delta and C fibre transmission is temporarily inhibited. The input of nociceptors (pain nerves) is reduced and the synaptic connections are reorganized.

After repeated treatments the sensitisation of nerves is reduced. Great news for those with over-active sensory nerves that say PAIN PAIN PAIN long after the injury or trauma has stopped!

A cascade of downstream metabolic effects also leads to reduction of various inflammatory markers including prostaglandin E2, interleukin 1β and tumour necrosis factor α.

Other Uses

The same technology is also antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial. In podiatry offices they use it for killing toenail fungus. In veterinary they use it for snake bites and other skin wounds as well as sinus infections and such.

Studies

Both animal and human clinical studies have shown the highly beneficial effects on a variety of diseases, injuries, and have been widely used for both chronic and acute (older and newer) injuries and pain conditions.

Over 100 phase III, randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled, clinical trials (RCTs) have been published.

These are supported by over 1,000 more laboratory studies investigating the primary mechanisms of laser biostimulation as well as the cascade of secondary effects which contribute to the local and systemic effects.

A systemic review of literature is when a group of researchers pull up all available data on a topic and then analyze it. It’s one of the best forms of science because it allows them to look at multiple studies and evaluate them individually and as a whole. In the last decade at least six systematic reviews have found in favour of LLLT.

BMJ sports medicine journal, systematic review of surgical and conservative interventions for frozen shoulder “strong evidence” for LLLT. 2010 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20647296

The International Association for the Study of Pain found “strong evidence” for LLLT on
myofascial pain syndrome. 2010 http://www.iasp-pain.org/AM/AMTemplate.cfm?Section=Home&CONTENTID=9288&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm

The BMJ clinical evidence recommendations for tennis elbow 2011 now include LLLT https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21708051?dopt=Citation

American Physical Therapy Association guidelines recommend LLLT for Achilles tendonitis. 2010

Lancet systematic review: “LLLT reduces pain immediately after treatment in acute neck pain and up to 22 weeks after completion of treatment in patients with chronic neck pain”. 2009 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(09)61522-1/abstract

World Health Organisation (Bone and Joint Task Force) For neck pain LLLT “more effective than no treatment, sham, or alternative interventions” 2008 https://journals.lww.com/spinejournal/Fulltext/2008/02151/The_Bone_and_Joint_Decade_2000_2010_Task_Force_on.4.aspx It’s important that a therapy out perform a sham therapy, otherwise the effect is most likely a placebo rather than an actual physiological change!

In August 2010 The Lancet reported that the systematic review of LLLT for neck pain was in their top 20 most downloaded papers for 2010.

The History

In 1967 Endre Mester at Semmeweis University in Budapest, Hungary conducted an experiment using light on mice. He found that the mice treated stayed healthier and even grew back hair from the treated surgical site faster than the untreated group. He coined the term “laser biostimulation”. This started several decades of research and engineering that have lead to the systems we have today.

Laser therapy was approved by the FDA in 2002 and more manufacturers started producing therapeutic laser systems. Usually small, handheld devices that are manned by a technician. Full-body laser systems have only been out for about a year and are only currently made by two companies.

RCTs with positive outcomes have been published on pathologies as diverse as osteoarthritis (Bertolucci and Grey 1995; Ozdemir et al. 2001; Stelian et al. 1992), tendinopathies (Bjordal et al. 2006b; Stergioulas et al. 2008; Vasseljen et al. 1992), wounds (Caetano et al. 2009; Gupta et al. 1998; Ozcelik et al. 2008; Schubert et al. 2007), back pain (Basford et al. 1999),neck pain (Chow et al. 2006; Gur et al. 2004), muscle fatigue (Leal Junior et al. 2008a; Leal Junior et al. 2008b), peripheral nerve injuries (Rochkind et al. 2007) and strokes (Lampl et al. 2007; Zivin et al. 2009); nevertheless results have not always been positive. This failure in certain circumstances can be attributed to several factors including dosimetry (inadequate or too much energy delivered, inadequate or too much irradiance, inappropriate pulse structure, irradiation of insufficient area of the pathology),inappropriate anatomical treatment location and concurrent patient medication (which can inhibit healing) (Aimbire et al. 2006; Goncalves et al. 2007).

Other Devices on the Market

Now this gets tricky, because several devices on the market claim to do similar things. And they all have great sciencey sounding marketing attached to them. So let’s talk about what types of light are available.

Red Light Tanning Beds

There are “red light tanning beds” available locally, usually at tanning companies, and it’s included in the membership fee.

Fluorescent red light beds are an off-shoot of traditional tanning beds.

They use a low-pressure mercury-vapor gas-discharge lamp that uses fluorescence to produce visible light.

An electric current in the gas excites mercury vapor which produces short-wave ultraviolet light that then causes a phosphor coating on the inside of the lamp to glow. The UV is much less than in a traditional tanning bed, but still part of the process.

The light waves are very dispersed and not concentrated, cannot penetrate past the very top layer of the epidermis, which is why their use is advertised as “cosmetic body care”.

They typically have between 24 and 32 bulbs that are “red”, but actually are pink by the time they are produced. They flicker at twice the supply frequency which results in fluctuations of both output and wavelength.

The average cost to businesses for one of these units is about $2000 to $3500.

Handheld and Wearable Lasers

There are also many “hand held lasers” available online as well as pads that you can attach to the body (even ones that go up the nose!) for a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. These are, for the most part, literally relabeled class 3a lasers.

You know what else is a class 3a laser? The laser pointer you use to play with your kitty cat and use to point during presentations. There are some benefits to these, but it takes a very very long time to get enough light into the cells and the area treated is extremely small.

Class 3b lasers are usually marketed to chiropractic offices, physical therapy offices, etc. The consumer grade ones, if even true 3b, are very low powered.

Chinese LED Panels and “Healing Devices”

You can buy all kinds of light devices from China and other countries which claim to have healing effects as well, not to mention those made in the United States. They range from $40 to thousands.

Here’s the problem though… many of those are just glorified heat lamps or very cheap LEDs that over promise results for a wide range of conditions from diarrhea to memory problems to high blood pressure. (Sounds like a lot of claims people make about essential oils, which we could write a book-length rant about!)

This misleading advertising has lead to fraud lawsuits with the FDA and injunctions against companies. Most recently in 2018 a local Tampa company got nailed and plead guilty with the intent to defraud and mislead. He was given a 12-year sentence, the longest every given to a device maker. (Great, except he was able to sell them for 20 years!)

Our Choice

We were extremely picky about what devices we brought into our office.

We wanted to make sure they were doing what they claim, producing the wavelengths of light that are most beneficial, and doing so strongly enough that they can penetrate deeply enough into the body to affect where our clients are feeling the most pain. We also wanted to be sure the equipment was made professionally and of the highest quality so our clients would be safe, enjoy consistent treatments, and have as few interruptions in care as possible.

The Prism Light Pod is the industry’s most advanced full-body laser light pod on the market. It accelerates body cell recovery, reduces fatigue, stress, chronic pain, and slows the aging process. The pod uses almost a thousand non-invasive cold laser and red LED lights. They are non-fluorescent, non-UV, non-infrared based.

Because of the type of light used it is a true red and controlled tightly for the ideal healing range of wavelengths and a power output that allows deep penetration. No heat is emitted and no harmful gas or UV rays are used or produced. Our device retails for $80,000 and is a serious piece of medical grade equipment.

Excited to Try It? Curious? Kicking Tires? 

We offer a FREE demonstration on one area with our hand-held laser; this appointment takes a half hour. Choose “Free laser demo” when you click “book now” at the bottom of any page. Our whole body laser pod has a try-it package of three full-body treatments for just $99. Allow a half hour for each and be sure to schedule them within a week’s period. Call 941-676-3433 with questions or to schedule.

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