Does Red Light Therapy Work for Pain?

Author : Ari Whitten
Medical Reviewer: Evan Hirsch, M.D.

Red Light Therapy for Pain

Chronic pain is an enormous problem for people around the world. In the US alone, around 100 million of us are affected by a range of life-limiting painful conditions – and it’s estimated to cost the economy between $560-635 billion annually, both in health care costs and lost productivity.

Part of the reason chronic pain is so difficult to deal with is that it’s not just the symptom of a single medical condition. While many medical organizations define chronic pain as lasting more than 12 weeks, they generally also note that the condition is extremely complex and unique to each person.

So, what’s the answer if you can’t easily find and treat a single cause?

Unfortunately, the widely-accepted solution is powerful pain management medication – a vast range of pharmaceuticals that come with an equally vast range of side-effects. Since many of these types of medication continues to attract a well-deserved bad-press, it’s no surprise to find that millions of people are looking for a safe, drug-free solution.

Could red light therapies be that solution?

I’m convinced that they can – and in this post, I’m going to explain how red light therapies work as an effective method of pain relief, and present the evidence that proves it.

What is Red Light Therapy?

If you’ve seen my article on the benefits, side effects, and uses of red light therapy – you might already know a bit about the background of the science. If not, it’s worth getting a quick overview.

Although the origins of lasers and light in medicine go back further, it was NASA in the 1990s that really proved low-level laser therapy (LLLT) had incredible potential. With a focus on deep space exploration, the teams at the Kennedy Space Centre looked at how light could be used to boost the growth of cells onboard spacecraft.

The benefits of these studies would be two-fold. Not only would astronauts have the means to help boost wound healing if required, but they also had the technology to enhance the growth of the plants they used for studies – and potentially as food. 1 When an organization with the weight of NASA makes a discovery, the world takes notice – and it wasn’t long before the medical community began their own trails to expand on the work that had already been done.

The great news was, NASA had refined the use of near-infrared lights, so where power-hungry lasers were initially used, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) could now provide the same results – making the technology much more practical. Hosts of studies took place – and the evidence was clear, red light therapy had incredible potential – whether you were looking at for cosmetic use, performance enhancement in sport, or the treatment of chronic medical issues.

Of course, it’s always good to be sceptical when such bold claims are made. With this in mind, it’s worth exploring why light therapy devices are apparently so effective across such a broad range of conditions – especially pain management.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work for Pain?

In actual fact, if you understand why red LED light treatment works for pain, you’ll get a good understanding of how it works for other issues too – but to do so, you need to think on a microscopically small level.

If you could get a close up look at virtually any cell of any living organism on Earth, you’ll find a chemical compound called adenosine triphosphate – or ‘ATP’ for short. ATP is a central ‘metabolite’ – a substance that helps to carry out the chemical processes within our bodies that keep us alive.

The key processes we’ll focus on are communication between cells and the creation of energy within each cell. Quite simply, cells need energy if they’re going to work – and they need to communicate with one another if they’re going to fulfil their roles in the body.

How are ATP and pain linked?

ATP is absolutely vital when it comes to preventing or reducing pain. 2 The trouble is, pain (and the stress caused by pain) generates nitric oxide, and ATP production is inhibited when too much nitric oxide is produced in our bodies. 3

So, can’t we just somehow lower nitric oxide production and get back that natural pain relief? 

Sadly, it’s not that simple. Nitric oxide is a key molecule for blood vessel health; in fact, it’s probably one of the most important elements in protecting our heart health.

Nitric oxide is closely tied to our ‘fight or flight’ response. For tens of thousands of years, that fight or flight response has kept us alive – alert to dangers around us, and able to run away or fight if necessary. Whether we stand and fight in times of danger, or turn-tail and run, our muscles need extra oxygen – so our blood vessels have to quickly expand to let our red blood cells can deliver that oxygen. As a ‘vasodilator’, nitric oxide expands those blood vessels.

The problem is, our fight or flight reflex is rarely used in modern life. Sure, if you come face to face with a mountain lion on a hike, then it might be required – but most of the time, our fight or flight response is triggered by pain, stress or worry. Either way, your body reacts in the same way; increasing nitric oxide and stress hormone production and stopping the production of ATP.

When ATP production is inhibited, it doesn’t just remove the compound’s ability to reduce pain, it also means the cells have a reduced amount of energy – and their ability to communicate with one another is reduced. As a result, the work they do to naturally reduce pain (including joint pain and the pain associated with inflammation) is significantly hindered.

As you can probably now see, there’s often a vicious cycle at play within your body when you’re experiencing chronic pain. Stress hormones are produced to help you flee whatever is causing you pain – but by doing so, your body reduces the chance that you can produce your own painkillers and allow your cells to manage the pain naturally.

Why Have Our Bodies Developed in This Way?

You might be wondering why two key systems in our body seem to be so at odds with one another – and it’s a reasonable question, after all, there’s no one in the world that would consider chronic pain to be in any way beneficial.

The truth is, we’re using our bodies in ways that nature never really intended – and, if we’re not careful, it takes its toll.

For hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved to stand upright, giving us the edge over the other species that we shared the planet with. We became fast on our legs, agile, strong, fit, and incredibly adaptable. Now, we sit at desks for a large chunk of our working day – or we bend, reach, and lift in ways that aren’t natural. When we finish our day at work, we slump on the sofa or crane our necks to look at our smartphones.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not attacking the modern way of life – and it’s not the only factor at play – I’m simply saying that these systems are out of sync because we’ve quickly changed the way we live, work, eat, and unwind. The ways we have behaved over the past 50-100 years are unlike any time that has ever gone before – at that can often spell problems for the very finely balanced cellular processes that keep us healthy.

What Does Red Light Do to Prevent This?

So, at the core of our cells, there’s an imbalance that contributes to chronic pain. Essentially, this imbalance is the thing that stops our bodies fighting pain and recovering naturally – and this is where red light becomes so powerful.

Our bodies are incredible healing machines – but they need the right conditions. A big factor in deciding whether those conditions will help or hinder the healing process is how effectively are cells are working. Red light doesn’t magically cure or ease medical conditions in the way a surgeon’s knife might; instead, it optimizes our cell conditions, giving our body the ability to do it itself.

When pain’s involved, red light is shown to reduce nitric oxide production and restore ATP production. Since the more efficiently your cells create ATP, the better your cells perform – and, quite simply, the better you feel. What’s more, red light is shown to also boost blood circulation without needing nitric oxide to dilate our blood vessels – so blood flow is improved – and our cells receive the nutrients they need to build healthier stronger tissue.

Proven Ways That Red Light Therapy Reduces Chronic Pain

We’ve covered how non-invasive red light and near-infrared therapy works on a microscopic level – but what does this mean in real-life? How is a red light therapy device actually going to work for your neck pain, back pain, or other chronic medical condition?

Rather than talk about cellular benefits, let’s look at some specific benefits of red light therapy – along with the studies that prove its effectiveness.

Neck pain

In 2006, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of low-level light therapy took place involving 90 subjects with chronic neck pain. While patients who were exposed to placebo treatments showed no improvement, those who received the light therapy reported efficacious pain relief over a 3-month period. 4

Knee pain

In a study exploring the impact of laser and LED phototherapy on knee pain, 86 patients who reported chronic serious pain in their knee were given 12 sessions of light therapy. Researchers reported that their results “demonstrate that phototherapy significantly decreased pain” and improved the quality of life in those patients. 5

Red Light Therapy Joint Pain

Lower back pain

In 2015, a study that explored pain of the lumbosacral area of the spine (that had lasted more than 12 weeks) saw low-level light therapy used on 394 patients. Results of the study confirmed that the chosen therapy was “an effective method for relieving pain in patients”. 6

Elbow, wrist, and finger pain

A study into the effectiveness of LLLT on elbow, wrist, and finger pain saw very short treatments offered to patients who had previously reported localized pain. The study was deemed a success – with researching describing the low-level light treatments as “effective for chronic pain of the elbow, wrist, and fingers”.

What’s especially interesting about this study is the extremely limited exposure to therapy that each patient had – with each area receiving just two lots of treatment for just 20 seconds each time. Despite this, pain in the wrist was improved for one and a half days – with pain in other areas relieved for between three and fifteen hours. 7

Chronic joint pain

In 2003, a systematic literature review carried out by the Australian Journal of Physiotherapy considered 11 trials that saw LLLT used on patients with chronic joint disorders. Across all trials, the therapy was deemed to “significantly reduce pain and improve health status” of those treated. 8

Sacroiliac joint pain

In a study that explored chronic sacroiliac pain across 9 patients, LLLT was applied twice a week across a 5-week period. Of the 9 patients in the trial, 8 reported significant pain improvement – and 6 demonstrated significantly increased trunk mobility. 9 Researchers concluded that pain reduction could have been due to increased blood circulation through the strong ligaments that support the sacroiliac joint.

Chronic tooth pain

A 2017 study carried out by the American Association of Endodontists explored the effects of light therapy on 36 patients who required root canal treatment on their molar teeth. During the first 4 days of postoperative pain, the group treated with light therapy reported significantly reduced pain – as well as a reduced requirement for pain medication throughout healing. 10

Osteoarthritis pain

In September 2018, the Alternative Therapy in Health and Medicine journal carried out an extensive review of the literature on nonpharmacological pain control for patients experiencing chronic pain relating to osteoarthritis. The review noted that “Many studies have demonstrated analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects provided by photobiomodulation in both experimental and clinical trials” and proposed that light therapy reduces pain by reducing oxidative stress in the cells. 11

Tendinitis and myofascial pain

In a randomized, double-blind study into the effect of light therapy for tendinitis and myofascial pain, 176 patients were split between an LLLT group and a placebo group. After six treatments across 3-4 weeks, patients in the LLLT group reported a “significant, positive effect” on their pain compared to the placebo group. 12

Using Red Light to Tackle Your Chronic Pain

To say that the evidence for red light therapy is clear is probably something of an understatement. Explore any major collection of medical research, and you’ll find thousands of light therapy studies – but you’ll have a difficult time finding any that don’t cite some kind of benefit of the people who’ve taken part.

Whether you’re hoping to take advantage of red light’s anti-aging dermatology benefits – like the reduction of fine lines and enhanced production of collagen – or you’re desperate for anti-inflammatory pain relief, the way treatments work means you can harness red light in the way that’s right for you.

Ultimately, if you’re experiencing chronic pain and you’re interested in the benefits red light can offer, there’s one important question you need to ask yourself:

What are you waiting for?

With the right device and the right wavelength of light, red light therapy isn’t a novelty treatment that should be used to complement pharmaceuticals; it’s a legitimate, stand-alone FDA approved solution to pain that stands up to the most rigorous peer-reviewed trails. As if that weren’t enough, side effects are extremely rare, and when they do occur, they are generally just a dull headache or slight redness that disappears shortly after your treatment ends.

Of course, it’s important to check with your doctor before you a book a session – but with the eyes of medicine firmly on red light therapies – your doctor is probably just going to be keen to know how effective it’s been for you!

If you’re eager to explore red light devices for your own home, I’ve listed the very best options in a dedicated blog post. From small, cost-effective handheld devices, to ultra-high-end full-body options, I’ve picked out the very best – and you might be surprised at quite how much you can save by opting for your own lamp.

Whichever option makes sense for you, take your first steps soon. If you’re a chronic pain sufferer, the difference red light can make is often nothing short of life changing.


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Medically Reviewed ByEvan Hirsch, M.D.

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