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Is Red Light Therapy the Future of Healing?

Red light therapy and low level laser therapy are increasingly being used to treat a wide range of painful conditions such as osteoarthritis, tendonitis, and neck and back pain. I’m going to review what the latest clinical trial evidence tells us about these therapies and discuss practical aspects like the differences between professional lasers and at home red light devices. My goal is to provide you with a comprehensive understanding, backed by scientific research, to help you make more informed decisions regarding these treatments.

Red light therapy and low level laser therapy fall under the broader category of photobiomodulation. They are emerging as safe non drug alternatives to treat pain and reduce inflammation. This approach is not only attracting attention from everyday fitness enthusiasts, but is also being adopted by professional athletes for its effectiveness in promoting recovery and healing injuries. But what exactly makes this treatment so effective?

Photobiomodulation uses various wavelengths of light to positively influence our body's cells. When our cells absorb the light photons, they boost cell metabolism and initiate cascades that lead to beneficial cellular responses such as increased cell proliferation and migration, anti-inflammatory signaling, and angiogenesis which is the formation of new blood vessels. And these effects translate into real world impact. Clinical trials have confirmed that these cellular-level benefits result in significant improvements to patient health outcomes.

For example, a systematic review and meta-analysis on knee osteoarthritis found that low level laser therapy helped reduce pain and disability when compared to placebo. More importantly, the benefits seemed to increase with time suggesting that laser therapy can not only provide immediate pain relief but also sustained improvements in pain management.

In addition, laser therapy has been shown to benefit various tendon disorders including tennis elbow, achilles tendinopathy, and rotator cuff tendinopathy, and it's also proven helpful in managing peripheral nerves and neuropathic pain. All of these studies support the notion that photobiomodulation can help treat painful conditions and aid in tissue recovery.

Now it’s also worth mentioning that these light treatments are incredibly safe with most people experiencing no adverse effects. In cases where side effects do occur, they tend to be minor, such as mild discomfort during the treatment session. Others might notice some skin redness or irritation at the treatment area. This is typically transient and resolves quickly.

Ok so the evidence supporting photobiomodulation is compelling, now the question is where should you go to receive the best possible treatment? Generally, professional healthcare facilities such as physical therapy practices, chiropractic offices, and physician clinics are equipped with advanced lasers, ensuring you receive the most effective and targeted therapy.

A major benefit of higher powered lasers is their ability to deliver a large amount of energy in a shorter time. This efficiency is crucial for those seeking quick and effective treatment, as it allows for a therapeutic dose to be administered rapidly. Usually, treatment is required around 2 to 3 times per week, totaling 6 to 12 sessions. However, more chronic conditions like arthritis might require additional treatments, followed by maintenance sessions as necessary. It's important to remember that treatment plans should be personalized to your specific needs and condition.

And what about home based devices? How do at home red light LED therapy devices differ from professional low level lasers? There are a few key differences which I would like to discuss. Home LED devices are more affordable and convenient for personal use. However, they typically have a broader bandwidth and produce a more divergent beam, making it more difficult to deliver a large amount of energy into a targeted area. 

Recent clinical trials indicate that low-level laser therapy is significantly more effective when administered at optimal doses. Adjusting the dose and targeting treatment is much more achievable with more expensive lasers found in professional health settings. But that’s not to say red light therapy at home doesn’t work.

Some studies suggest that both lasers and LEDs have been proven to have positive results in wound healing, pain reduction, and inflammation control. With that said, there is still considerable debate over their relative efficacy, and in general, laser therapy is recommended if available. 

Now I also want to point out that in the United States, most insurance plans, including Medicare, do not cover low-level laser therapy. This means opting for this treatment often involves out-of-pocket expenses, and costs can vary significantly.

This is why home LED devices are becoming increasingly popular, particularly as prices drop due to growing demand and competition between companies. The cost of at home devices varies based on size and purpose. Smaller but high quality devices for targeted treatment are a few hundred dollars while larger full body devices can cost several thousand dollars.

So in light of everything we’ve discussed, I want to share my real-world observations regarding red light and low-level laser therapy. From my patients who have tried it, about half have experienced positive results, while the other half saw minimal change. This is in stark contrast to clinical trial outcomes with most people seeing improvements in their symptoms.

But this discrepancy doesn't necessarily imply the treatment is ineffective. It's more likely due to the varying methods and protocols employed by different practitioners, as well as the use of home devices, which may not consistently provide the optimal therapeutic effects.

In fact, this inconsistency is a major reason why many professional treatment guidelines do not currently endorse low-level laser therapy for conditions like osteoarthritis. There's still a lot of uncertainty regarding proper dosing and the differing therapeutic effects between lasers and LEDs. I’ve put links in the video description of higher quality devices that hopefully will deliver better results. Please note this is not an endorsement, rather, it’s a starting point for your research into these devices.

Ultimately, red light therapy is exceptionally safe, with minimal or no side effects. Based on current scientific research, it does seem like an effective option for those seeking alternatives to managing pain and inflammation. Particularly for conditions like arthritis, tendon disorders, and muscle recovery, this therapy offers a non-invasive and drug-free approach. Just make sure you incorporate it as part of a comprehensive treatment plan which should also include regular exercise and proper nutrition. 


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