Science-Backed Red Light Therapy Benefits and Uses
Curious about red light therapy?
We did the research, so you don't have to.
Learn how red light therapy has been proven to relieve pain, enhance healing, treat skin, and more.
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy, also called low-level laser light therapy (LLLT), is a drug-free alternative to traditional medicines. It involves using a device that emits various levels of red light to target and treat skin, pain, and various health conditions. These red light devices use red and infrared light ranging from the mid 660 nanometers to the mid-800-nanometer range.
Is Red Light Therapy a Hoax?
While it may sound too good to be true, red light therapy has proven itself to be a universal treatment for many health conditions. The history of red light therapy research goes as far back as 1967 when the first device was developed, and into the 1990s, NASA started studying red light therapy for pain relief. This article will go through the many benefits and uses of red light therapy to better understand how it can help. Studies back each use and benefit to show results.
Benefits of Red Light Therapy
It's known that red light treatment sparks many physiological events when the body is exposed. The benefits listed below highlight how red light therapy works and precisely what happens to the target area.
Wound Healing and Tissue Repair
Studies have found red light therapy to be effective in treating wounds and tissue repair. Red light therapy promotes healing by reducing inflammatory cells. Newly stimulated blood cells then form (angiogenesis), and an increase in collagen and fibroblast production occurs.
Improved Blood Flow
Red light therapy improves blood flow by increasing cell energy to trigger physiological effects such as boosted blood flow. Better blood flow means the body is better equipped to heal and perform.
Reduced Pain and Inflammation
A key result of being exposed to red and infrared light waves is the release of nitric oxide. The release of nitric oxide enhances blood circulation to deliver vital nutrients and oxygen to damaged tissues more effectively—this aids in the repair and regeneration of injured tissues, which reduces pain and inflammation. Red light therapy for pain offers a less invasive and safe pain relief method compared to traditional methods.
Better Joint Health
Healthy joints are essential to maintaining one's mobility and independence. Red light therapy has been found to improve joint health by reducing pain and extending the period between retreatment.
Improved Injury and Recovery Time
Red light therapy has been studied and used to reduce the return-to-play period of injured athletes. For example, the US track team has been spotted using it, and a study found it able to reduce recovery times from 19.23 to 9.6 days.
Safe for All Skin Types
An added benefit of red light therapy is safety. There haven't been any reports of LLLT harming a particular skin type. However, it should be noted that overexposure to any light can be damaging. Therefore, it's important to be moderate when using light treatment. Overall, red light therapy for skin can aid in treating many types of conditions.
An Alternative to Prescription Drugs
Prescription drugs, for a while, have been the standard in healthcare. Unfortunately, this poses many threats to long-term health and can be addictive, depending on the type. Red light therapy poses a non-addictive alternative to traditional drugs and can even be used interchangeably.
Enhanced Bone Repair and Growth
One significant effect of LLLT exposure is the activation of stem cells. Stem cells are where brain cells, blood cells, heart muscle cells, and bone cells originate. When activated, stem cells travel through the bloodstream to the injured area and then transform into the needed cell type. For example, red and infrared light has been found to activate stem cells in the bone marrow to heal.
Promotes a Healthy and Active Lifestyle
A key to being healthy and active is being free from ailments. Unfortunately, chronic pain can put a damper on this lifestyle. Red light therapy reduces pain and injuries to prevent them from worsening for a more effective healing process.
Enhanced Immune System
Exposure to red light therapy results in the release of nitric oxide, a vital piece of a healthy immune system. In addition, Nitric oxide plays an essential role in healthy arteries. It helps arteries relax, reduces oxidative stress, prevents vessels from platelet clumping, and regulates blood pressure. Not only that, but red light therapy exposure gives cells a boost in energy to function correctly.
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Red Light Therapy Uses
While relatively young in its studies, red light therapy has shown to be a universal treatment for various ailments and conditions. To show how versatile LLLT is, we've gathered over 20 studies and reports that have researched the results of red light treatment for specific ailments and health conditions.
It's important to note that lights that emit red wavelengths can help with sleep, not those tinted with red. One theory states that red light wavelengths boost melatonin production. Melatonin is a natural hormone that aids in sleep. It's released in your brain as it gets dark outside, and less light surrounds you.
A small 2012 study evaluated 20 female athletes given 30 minutes of red LED light therapy for sleep every night for 14 days. Those who underwent treatments showed an improved quality of sleep, better melatonin levels, and increased endurance performance.
A 2019 study on 19 people in an office environment found that using a combination of red and ambient white light during after-lunch periods improved circadian rhythm and spiked alertness. This was significant given many people show dips in energy levels.
Despite patient testimonials and study results, LED red light therapy for weight loss is controversial amongst researchers and healthcare professionals. This weight-loss method delivers red, blue, and infrared light approximately 1 to 2 inches into the skin, targeting the fat layer below the skin's surface.
While it's unclear how red light therapy works, it's commonly thought that LLLT temporarily breaks down a portion of the cell membrane. Fat cells can then leach out, shrink, and be removed through the body's waste removal process.
A 2020 six-week study involving 60 participants using LLLT treatments twice per week led to a .8" waist circumference reduction. Please note that these findings are limited because of a lack of a control group.
A 2009 randomized study on 67 people found those who underwent six LLLT treatments in two weeks lost significantly more inches in their abdomen, hips, and thighs (3.5") than the control group.
Another study in 2013 observed 86 people for two weeks and found a massive decrease in the waist (1.1"), hip (.8"), and thigh circumference (1.2"). However, this study did lack a control group.
While most studies show a reduction in fat after six or more red light therapy treatments, more extensive and longer-term research is required on the effectiveness of red light laser therapy for weight loss.
Is red light therapy good for hair growth?
Red light therapy for hair growth is considered a safe and convenient alternative to traditional treatment such as medications and transplant surgery. LLLT irradiates photons into scalp tissues to encourage hair growth in weak cells. It's thought that LLLT invigorates circulation and stimulation to promote hair follicles to produce hair. However, because studies are inconsistent, a common conclusion amongst medical professionals is that this red light therapy for hair loss works for some but not all.
A 2014 study found LLLT to be safe and effective for hair growth in men and women. However, the study could not determine the optimal wavelength, coherence, and dosimetric parameters for treatments.
A study in 2013 on 41 males aged 18 to 48 found red light hair treatment to provide a 39% hair growth increase in 16 weeks with at-home treatments every other day.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel is a painful condition in which the hands and wrists are affected. The median curve in the forearm and wrist is compressed, causing feelings of numbness, tingling, and weakness.
One study administered LLLT to 18 patients with mild to moderate carpal tunnel syndrome for two weeks with 10-minute sessions, five days per week. The study found that LLLT effectively reduces pain and carpal tunnel symptoms, improves functional ability, and strengthens the fingers and hands with no side effects.
Another study looked at 100 hands (50 women) with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. The patients were broken up into three groups:
- Splinting only
- Splinting plus ultrasound
- Splinting plus low-level laser therapy
After three months of treatment, the results found all groups to have varying levels of improvement. However, the groups that received a combination of therapy showed better improvement than splinting alone. The study revealed that red light therapy for carpal tunnel plus splinting was advantageous over ultrasound plus splinting, significantly alleviating symptoms and pain and increasing patient satisfaction.
A research study divided 66 patients with mild to moderate carpal tunnel into two groups:
- Group 1: Received 15 sessions of gallium-aluminum-arsenide laser treatment at 18 J per session while wearing a wrist splint
- Group 2: Received a placebo laser therapy while wearing a wrist splint
Group one showed significantly more pronounced results, especially in grip strength after five and 12-week follow-ups. After a 12-week follow-up, distal motor latency of the median nerve had improved considerably in group one compared to group two. The study concluded LLLT to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate carpal tunnel syndrome as it can improve grip strength up to three months after treatment.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system attacks joint linings, causing pain. While there are no definitive cures for this condition, quite a few treatments reduce symptoms, red light therapy being one of them.
Is red light therapy good for rheumatoid arthritis?
A meta-analysis conducted in 2000 found red light therapy for arthritis to be a considerable solution for short-term relief and morning stiffness. The analysis found LLLT reduces pain by 70% and morning stiffness by 27.5 minutes for RA patients. However, the study lacked data on wavelength, treatment duration, dosage, and application site. It was cited that further investigation on red light therapy for rheumatoid arthritis is needed.
Cancer Treatments (Oral Mucositis)
Oral mucositis is a common side effect that occurs when oral cancer patients are treated with chemotherapy. This side effect can be excruciating and cause patients unable to eat and an increased risk of infection from open sores.
A 2019 systematic review of 33 research papers found light therapy to reduce oral mucositis. This condition is typically treated with a specialized mouth wash and opioids for pain. Red light therapy for oral mucositis offers a more affordable alternative with little to no side effects.
Wrinkles are a naturally occurring aspect of aging. However, wrinkled skin can be intensified by various factors, including exposure to ultraviolet light and smoking. Wrinkle reduction is just one of the red light therapy skin benefits this treatment has to offer.
A clinical study on the effects of LLLT for skin rejuvenation found it effective for reducing wrinkles and increasing skin elasticity. The research found significant reductions in wrinkles, up to 36% less, and increased skin elasticity, up to 19%. In addition, the study concluded that LED red light therapy for wrinkle reduction ranging from 830 to 633 nanometers was most effective in rejuvenating the skin.
Scarring occurs when the skin's dermis, the deeper and thicker layer, becomes damaged. The body forms new collagen fibers to mend the damage due to injury, creating a scar. This new scar tissue has a different texture/quality than surrounding tissue, forming after a wound is finished healing.
A 2004 study on the effects of red light therapy for scars found it effective in reducing burn scarring in 17 of the 19 patients involved. In addition, none of the patients experienced any side effects. A pivotal piece to scar reduction is adequate collagen, and red light therapy exposure sparks collagen production.
Dementia, a form of Alzheimer's, is a condition in which memory and cognitive abilities are significantly affected. While there is no cure for this condition, red light therapy has been found to lessen symptoms.
A 2017 study treated dementia patients with transcranial light therapy for 12-weeks and found noticeable improvements. Patients experienced:
- Increased cognitive function
- Improved sleep
- Fewer angry outbursts
- Less anxiety
- And less wandering.
Another promising sign is none of those patients experienced any adverse side effects. However, it should be noted that more studies are required to understand better the potential of red light therapy for dementia.
Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, occurs when the cartilage between the bones starts to deteriorate. This causes the bones to start rubbing together, causing pain and swelling. While there is no cure for arthritis, red light therapy for osteoarthritis has been tested as a treatment method. 50 patients with osteoarthritis of both knees were divided into three groups:
- Red (15 total)
- Infrared (18 total)
- Placebo (17 total)
Each patient then self-administered treatments for 15 minutes, twice a day, for ten days. Pain reduction in the red and infrared groups after treatment was more than 50%, with no significant pain improvement in the placebo group. The study concluded LLLT to be effective in relieving pain and disability from osteoarthritis in the knee.
Tendonitis (Tendinitis) is when the tissues connecting muscle to bone become inflamed, causing pain and inflammation. A 15-month study involving 395 sports injuries including sprains, strains, tendonitis, and more found this treatment effective in reducing the return to play period. Treatments involving 830 nm LED phototherapy significantly and safely reduced the return to play period. However, it should be noted there was no control group, and further studies on red light therapy for tendonitis are required.
Another study involving seven people suggests LLLT reduces inflammation and pain in patients with Achilles tendinitis.
Sun damage occurs when light hits unprotected skin, affecting it at a molecular level. Skin damage, known as photoaging, can result in wrinkling, pigmentation changes (age spots, liver spots, and freckles), decreased elasticity, uneven skin texture, broken capillaries, and redness & blotchiness.
A 2006 published study evaluated the effectiveness of combined 633 nm, and 830 nm LED treatment on photodamaged skin. The study involved 36 patients who received nine treatments over five weeks and were evaluated 12 weeks after treatment. The study found the majority of the subjects experienced improvements in skin softness, smoothness, and firmness. Thus, concluding red light therapy for sun damage to be effective an effective treatment.
Does red light therapy help acne?
When paired with blue light, red light therapy has been studied and proven to treat acne vulgaris. A 2004 published study found 85% of patients to experience a 50% reduction of lesions after four biweekly treatments. 20% of the cases experienced a 90% reduction. The study found a 70-80% clearance three months after treatment with a non-respondent rate of 15-20%. Thus, concluding red light therapy for acne to be a safe and effective treatment for mild-moderate inflammatory acne vulgaris.
Back pain is the leading worldwide cause of disability, with an estimated 80% of the population experiencing it at one point in their life. There are many causes of back pain ranging from sports injuries, sprains to poor posture, arthritis, and obesity.
A study of 39 patients with chronic lower back pain was conducted to research the effects of red light therapy for back pain. Twenty-one patients received red light therapy at 800 to 1200 nanometers, while 18 received a placebo. At the end of treatment, those given LLLT reported a reduced pain level from 6.9/10 to 3/10, while the placebo group went from 7.4/10 to 6/10. Thus, concluding red light therapy for back pain reduces chronic pain with no adverse side effects.
Because we constantly turn our heads throughout the day, neck pain can be a significant burden and often worsen when not treated. However, there is no definitive cause of neck pain. Instead, it can be caused by strains, poor sleep positions, stress, and even wearing heavy necklaces.
A study of 60 patients with chronic neck pain concluded that red light therapy for neck pain to be an effective treatment. The six-week study found red light therapy to increase range of motion, decrease pain, and improve functionality.
Cellulite is a naturally occurring condition in which the skin overlying specific areas of fat is pulled down to deeper tissues, creating an uneven surface. This results in inconsistent and lumpy skin. It's most commonly found on hips, thighs, abdomen, buttocks, and breasts.
A 2011 study involving twenty women aged 25 to 55 administered a combination of 850 nm infrared therapy and treadmill training. The participants were divided into two groups, with one only receiving treadmill training and the other receiving treadmill training and red light therapy for cellulite. The activity was performed for 45 minutes twice a week over three months. The study found the red light therapy group to show significantly less cellulite than the treadmill-only treatment group.
While extensive studies and research are required, one cannot deny the many benefits of red light therapy for injuries, pain, skin, and more. Present studies highlighting the many red LED light therapy benefits show it to be a versatile treatment method.
Red Light Therapy and Pain Relief Related Resources
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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