The 2023 Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy for Pain
Jump to a Section:
- What is Red Light Therapy?
- Understanding the Light Spectrum
- Blue vs. Full-Spectrum vs. Red Light Therapy
- The History of Red Light Therapy
- How Does Red Light Therapy Work?
- What Types of Pain Does Red Light Therapy Treat?
- Is Red Light Therapy Safe?
- Red Light Therapy Benefits
- Red Light Therapy Pros and Cons
- Red Light Therapy Compared to Other Pain Relief Methods
According to the Washington Post, an estimated 20.3% of Americans (50 million) experience chronic pain, making it seem as if it's a part of being alive. And while we've grown to accept the fact we'll experience pain at some point, we rarely realize the negative impact pain can have physically and mentally. When ignored or mistreated, acute pain can manifest into chronic pain, bringing along a series of adverse long-term effects. This can create a cycle of pain and can immensely affect one's ability to use the area in pain. Chronic pain can also develop a series of health issues, including high blood pressure, fatigue, sleeping problems, and even eating disorders.
When covering the topic of pain relief, it's almost mandatory to bring up pain medications. While this type of pain relief is tempting because of its convenience, it can bring further health complications. Low-risk drugs such as ibuprofen (NSAIDs) may be harmless at first, but overuse can have adverse health consequences. And opioids are proven to lose effectiveness long-term, making them highly addictive. With a broad spectrum of information on the effects of pain and medication, we're forced to answer the common question, "how do we manage pain safely and effectively?" One option is the holistic method of red light therapy. In this guide, we'll cover everything you need to know, including what red light therapy is, how it works, health conditions it treats, its benefits, and more.
With a broad spectrum of information on the effects of pain and medication, we're forced to answer the common question, "how do we manage pain safely and effectively?" One option is the holistic method of red light therapy. In this guide, we'll cover everything you need to know, including what red light therapy is, how it works, health conditions it treats, its benefits, and more.
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is a holistic pain relief method used to treat various pain and skin conditions. It uses low-level red wavelengths of light to treat ailments, including:
- Skin issues (wrinkles, acne, and scars)
- Carpal tunnel
- And more
Red light therapy is called many things, including:
- Photobiomodulation (PBM)
- Low-level light therapy (LLLT)
- Soft laser therapy
- Cold laser therapy
- Photonic stimulation
- And low-power laser therapy (LPLT)
Red light treatment is known for being convenient, painless, and an excellent alternative to traditional pain medications.
Understanding the Light Spectrum
To have a clear understanding of red/infrared treatment, one must first understand what the light spectrum is and how it works. The light spectrum visible to the human eye is just a portion of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Our eyesight is only able to see wavelengths from 380 to 700 nanometers. Nanometers are units of measurement which measure light. One nanometer equates to one-billionth of a meter.
Humans can only see violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red colors on the light spectrum. Humans are not able to see infrared, which is measures in the mid-800s nanometer range. As objects become hotter, they produce more energy which is dominated by shorter wavelengths. Thus, changing colors before our eyes. Flames from a blow torch, for example, transform from red to blue as their temperature increases and wavelengths grow shorter.
Scientists use the light spectrum as a method for measuring the temperature of stars. Our sun produces more yellow light because it has a 5,500 C° temperature. If our sun were cooler, say 3,000 C°, it would have a reddish appearance. If it were 12,000 C°, it would appear to be blue.
Blue vs. Full-Spectrum vs. Red Light therapy
Various types of light therapy serve multiple purposes. We'll cover blue light therapy, full-spectrum light therapy, and red light therapy for the sake of simplicity. Each type treats different health conditions such as seasonal affective disorder, skin conditions, jet lag, pain, and more.
Blue Light Therapy
One the light spectrum, blue light is measured at 400 to 500 nanometers. This type of light therapy is commonly used for bright light therapy (aka phototherapy). It's proven to increase alertness, memory, and moods. It's beneficial for turning off melatonin production to make us feel more alert. It should be noted that too much blue light can cause sleep disorders. It's recommended to limit electronic usage at night because they emit blue light.
When it comes to blue light therapy, it's best to proceed with caution. Due to its lower wavelengths and higher energy levels, blue light can cause eye damage. Studies have shown light colors between 415 and 455 nanometers to cause harm to the eyes—standard electronics including TVs, computers, and cell phones produce wavelengths from 400 to 490 nanometers. Additional research is needed to understand the long-term effects.
Full-Spectrum light therapy, like blue light therapy, is also used to boost one's energy, improve moods, enhance sleep, and maintain wellness. Full-spectrum uses all colors in the electromagnetic spectrum, including infrared, ultra-violet, and blue. While it's still disputed which is more effective, full-spectrum is proven to be safer.
When considering bright light therapy as a treatment, an important aspect to consider is light intensity. Light therapy lamps must produce 10,000 LUX from 10-12" to be effective. 10,000 LUX is the equivalent of morning sunlight. With light therapy lamps, timing is vital. They should be used in the morning for 20 to 30 minutes within an hour of waking. While generally safe, some common side effects include headaches, nausea, dizziness, and eye strain. Lowering the dosage can prevent these adverse side effects.
Red and Infrared Light
In comparison to blue light, red light is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Red light is delivered in the mid-600 nanometer range, while infrared is in the mid-800s. Due to its range and longer wavelengths, infrared is invisible to the human eye.
Red and infrared light, commonly used to treat skin and pain conditions, have been proven to be a holistic treatment for:
- Increasing injury recovery time
- Recovering muscles
- Balancing hormones
- Reducing wrinkles
- Lowering inflammation
- Losing weight
- And more
These types of light are effective because of their ability to penetrate deep into the skin. Red and infrared light promotes melatonin production. This stimulates the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is essential to function properly as it provides our body's cells with energy. This is why red light therapy products are so effective for speeding up the healing process.
The History of Red Light Therapy
Since our inception, humans have used light:
- For vision at night
- To way warm
- To keep healthy sleep cycles
- For pain relief
- And more
For further insight and confidence with red light therapy, we've highlighted the key historical moments that advanced modern red light therapy:
NASA starts to research red light therapy for growing plants in space. They discovered that intense light from red light-emitting diodes promotes growth and photosynthesis in the cells of plants. After finding that red light therapy wasn't adequate for plant growth in space, NASA realized it was effective for treating pain while maintaining astronauts' muscle mass while in space.
The FDA first approves low-level laser therapy devices.
How does red light therapy work?
As mentioned prior, red light therapy lights are effective because of their ability to reach deep into the skin without damaging it. Red light therapy machines penetrate 2-7 centimeters into inner skin layers using red and infrared light to reach muscles, nerves, and bones effectively. Wavelengths from 700 to 1,000 nanometers are ideal for treating inflammation conditions.
The warmth we feel from the sun is infrared light. Infrared light does not contain ultraviolet radiation, which is harmful to us. Once the skin is penetrated, red and infrared light becomes absorbed by photoreceptors in our body's cells. This creates a series of metabolic events and natural processes within the cells. When our bodies are exposed to red light therapy, here's what happens:
- Cells receive a boost of energy: Once red light is absorbed, each cell's mitochondria receive a boost of energy. Mitochondria, known as the powerhouse of the cell, is responsible for producing energy. Because their function is increased, mitochondria produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is energy-carrying molecules found in the cells of all living things. When given more energy, cells can function correctly.
- Cells repair and regenerate more quickly: Many experts believe that because of excess energy from red light therapy, they gain an enhanced ability to repair and restore themselves. This creates healing in skin and muscle tissues. The quicker cells can regenerate and repair, the faster injuries heal.
- Nitric oxide gets released: Nitric oxide is essential to healthy arteries. This gas helps arteries relax, reduces oxidative stress by fighting free radicals, prevents vessels from platelet clumping, and aids in blood pressure regulation. This allows the molecule to enhance blood circulation to deliver vital nutrients and oxygen to damaged tissues. This sparks the repair and regeneration of injured tissues, reducing pain and inflammation.
- Collagen production is increased: The protein collagen provides structure to the skin. It's also existent in muscle and connective tissue. When injuries heal, separated tissues are stitched back together through a latticework made up of collagen. Collagen production is increased when exposed to red and infrared light. Increased collagen production equated to healthier skin which is better able to heal effectively.
- Stem cells become activated: Stem cells are where specialized cells such as brain cells, blood cells, heart muscle cells, and bone cells come from. When stem cells are exposed to red and infrared light, they become activated. They then travel through the bloodstream to the injured area. After arriving, they transform into the needed cell type to help with healing. One study found red and infrared light effectively activates stem cells in the bone marrow. Thus, assisting in the healing process.
When it comes to how red light therapy works and improves our body's functions, it's pretty complex. There is still a lot of research required to understand how it works fully, its benefits, and the long-term effects. Yet, our current knowledge shows a promising future for pain relief and holistic health.
What types of pain does red light therapy treat?
Red light therapy has proven to be versatile for treating many pain types, including chronic, joint, neck, osteoarthritis, and more. Because it provides targeted pain relief, it's incredibly versatile for various conditions. We've provided a list of the many pain types red light therapy helps along with studies.
Because of its general safety, red light therapy can be used at home or anywhere it's needed. It's excellent for anyone with chronic pain and can be used as often as it's needed, up to three times per day per target area.
A study on elderly patients with osteoarthritis in their knees (joints) found red light therapy to treat their pain and disability.
Red light therapy for neck pain is an effective treatment for chronic pain in the neck. One study involving 60 students with chronic neck pain found red light therapy an effective pain relief method. In six weeks, red light therapy increased range of motion, decreased pain, and improved functionality.
By nature, osteoarthritis causes inflammation to affected areas. This makes red light therapy an excellent treatment for osteoarthritis. A study that compared high-intensity light therapy to low-intensity light therapy found both effective decreasing pain and improving function when combined with exercise.
Red light therapy enhances the healing process by boosting the body's ability to lower swelling in target areas. Chiropractors use red light therapy to treat bursitis because it effectively treats this condition.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Healthline reports red light therapy as an effective short-term method for carpal tunnel relief. However, these studies are limited.
Diabetic Foot Ulcers and Foot Neuropathy
45 patients with diabetic foot ulcers, in a study, reported improved blood circulation and autonomous nervous system regulation after using red light therapy.
A study conducted in 2011 on patients with psoriasis compared red and blue light therapy's effectiveness. Participants were given high-dose treatments three times each week for four hours, applying 10% silicic acid solution to plaques. The study concluded both effective in treating psoriasis.
It's been shown that red light therapy reduces pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Healthcare professionals are now starting to study and consistently use red light therapy to diagnose and analyze this condition. Red light therapy gives them the ability to see how much light passes through the body. RA often alters the number of tissues, water, and blood in the affected area. Red light gives doctors an insight into how it's progressing.
When it comes to treating ailments, red and infrared therapy offers a drug-free, safe, and effective relief method. Extensive studies on red light therapy show it to be a great source of foot pain relief, back pain relief, and more. As studies move forward, we'll continue to gain a fuller understanding of red LED light therapy, its capabilities, and the conditions it can treat.
Is red light therapy safe? What are the side effects?
In general, red light therapy is considered to be safe and effective. Some users have reported instances of blistering and burns from using this treatment method. It should be noted that the cause of some was from falling asleep while in use as well as damaged wires or device corrosion.
Compared to traditional lasers, red light therapy is safer. However, there is a risk of eye damage. It's recommended to have proper eye protection when using red light therapy. It will depend on the device type, size, and treatment length. Be sure to consult a doctor to learn more about potential red light therapy side effects that may occur.
Another concern when it comes to red light therapy is "how often should you use it?" Adequate red light therapy machines can be used up to three times per day per target area. Red light therapy for pain management has few side effects and is generally safe.
Red Light Therapy Benefits
So far in this guide, we've talked about the various forms of light therapy, what the light spectrum is, and what occurs when we're exposed to red/infrared light. The use of red/infrared light therapy at home or through a health professional is safe and straightforward. There are many red/infrared light therapy benefits. These are the science-backed benefits red light therapy has:
Promotes wound healing and tissue repair
Research from the medical journal Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia found red light therapy to promote healing by minimizing inflammatory cells. This results in newly stimulated blood vessels (angiogenesis), increased collagen production and boosted fibroblast production.
Improves Blood Flow
A study on red light therapy found this pain relief method to boost blood flow for chronic heel pain. Red light therapy increases the energy in cells which aids in better blood flow. This gives them the required energy to trigger physiological effects, including boosted blood flow.
Reduces Pain and Inflammation
In a study, seven patients with bilateral Achilles tendonitis were exposed to red light therapy. After being exposed, it was found that red light therapy reduced inflammation and pain in all 14 tendons. They concluded that red light therapy has a potential role in the management of inflammatory conditions.
A study in PubMed treated thirty-six patients with sun-damaged skin with red/infrared LEDs. These LEDs had a combined 633 nanometers and 830 nanometers and were exposed to the subjects nine times over five weeks. They found the skin to have significant improvements in wrinkles, smoothness, softness, and firmness. This study showed the effects red light therapy has on the skin.
Improves Joint Health
Another study exposed elderly patients with degenerative osteoarthritis of the knee to red light therapy lamps. Researchers found it helpful for reducing pain, improving joint health, and extending the period between retreatment.
Improves Injury and Recovery Time
When it comes to recovery for athletes, red light therapy has made significant strides. During the Rio Olympics, the US track team was spotted bringing a $181,000 red light therapy bed to the event. Micheal Hamblin, a Harvard expert, stated, "red light therapy may help you recover from exercise, sleep better, heal wounds and injuries like tendonitis, reduce arthritis." What's more, a study involving 65 athletes with varying strains, sprains, tendonitis, ligament damage, and contusions found red light therapy to reduce the average return to play period. This treatment was able to reduce the average recovery time from 19.23 to 9.6 days.
Safe for All Skin Types
Red light therapy is generally a secure method of treatment. There are no reports of red light therapy being harmful to any skin type in all of the research conducted. However, it should be noted that extensive exposure to any light type can be damaging to the skin. It's vital to practice moderation.
Is an Alternative to Prescription Drugs
Depending on the type, prescription medications can pose a threat to long-term health and can be addictive. Naturally, red light therapy is non-addictive and can serve as an alternative or interchangeably with traditional drugs.
Improves Bone Repair and Growth
Rats with Osteoporosis experienced enhanced bone repair and growth via red light therapy. This was achieved through stimulation of the newly formed bone, fibro vascularization, and angiogenesis.
A study involving twenty female athletes exposed them to 30 minutes of red light therapy for 14 continuous days. The subjects experienced increased melatonin levels, better sleep, and even better playing performance.
Promotes a Healthy and Active Lifestyle
Minimized pain and injury recovery time equate to a better ability to be physically active. Chronic pain puts limitations when it comes to using an injured area. This can deter the ability to lead a healthy and active life. Reduced pain and an enhanced healing process through red light therapy reduce limitations any injuries may create.
For those overwhelmed with countless weight loss methods, red light therapy may provide a solution. This method aids in weight loss in a few ways:
- Boosted cellular metabolism: Energized cells lead to better performance, minimized inflammation, and improved cellular reproduction. This leads to enhanced metabolism and better-functioning organs.
- An increase in muscle mass: Muscle mass growth is promoted when exposed to red light therapy. The more muscle mass you have, the more energy is needed. This means more calories are burned when resting. A study that exposed athletes to red light therapy found the subjects to have enhanced muscle recovery and increased muscle mass.
- Better regulated thyroids: Under-performing thyroids (aka hypothyroidism) have been linked to excessive weight gain. Another study found red light therapy to decrease autoimmune activity, which aids in restoring thyroids to their normal function of regulating the metabolism.
As research continues, red and infrared light benefits continue to develop. Continuous developments are being made to red and near-infrared light therapy devices to make this treatment method more affordable, effective, and available.
Red Light Therapy Pros and Cons
Red light therapy offers an excellent source of pain relief and better health. These pros and cons provide an insight into this treatment to make your decision better:
Red Light Therapy Compared to Other Pain Relief Methods
Modern medical discoveries have helped us lead healthier lives. Yet, all these options can make it overwhelming when deciding upon a pain relief method. For convenience, we've highlighted key differences of each type. It should be noted you should consult a doctor before trying these treatments.
rED lIGHT tHERAPY
Penetrates deep into the skin to relieve pain via red and near-infrared lights.
- Promotes healing and boosts blood circulation
- Uses a red light therapy device for targeted pain relief
- Little to no side effects
- Readily available over the counter
Blocks pain receptors using electrical stimulation, so you don't feel pain.
- Doesn't treat the injury; it only blocks pain from being felt
- Uses electrodes placed over the pain area for targeted pain relief
- Little to no side effects
- Readily available over the counter
Hot & Cold Therapy
Provides targeted pain relief using either hot or cold compress devices.
- Hot therapy enhances blood flow to promote healing
- Cold therapy reduces blood flow to lower swelling and pain
- Both need to be alternated to be most effective
- May require a microwave, freezer/fridge, or electrical outlet access
- Offers targeted pain relief
- Little to no side effects
- Readily available over the counter
Are drugs used to treat various types of pains and ailments.
- Available through a prescription and over the counter
- Range from low to high strength
- Can pose dangers to health based upon dosage and type
- Potentially addictive
- It doesn't provide target pain relief
- Convenient since they're typically taken orally
Uses special techniques to relieve pain and expand movement and functions in injuries.
- Sometimes requires a physical therapist
- It might require tools such as stretch bands, braces, and more
- Improves body mobility through stretching and strength training
- Commonly uses TENS units and red light therapy in unison
Try These Red Light Therapy Products for Pain Relief
About the Author
Brandon Landgraf is the Digital Marketing Manager for Carex Health Brands. He finds passion and fulfillment in creating content that enhances, improves, and enlivens others' quality of life. All of his written work is formulated to not only offer essential advice and tips but back it with proven studies and experts. His mission is to connect with readers and provide steps to make their lives better.
You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.
About Carex Health Brands
Carex is your one-stop shop for home medical equipment and for products that assist caregivers with providing the best possible support and care for their loved ones. Carex Health Brands has been the branded leader in in-home, self-care medical products for over 35 years. Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers by bring them quality products that bring dignity back to their lives. With our three nationally distributed brands, Carex Health Brands serves national, regional and independent food, drug and mass retailers along with wholesalers, distributors and medical dealers.
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