Low level laser therapy is also known as light therapy or photobiomodulation. There’s different forms of light therapy, but this form mainly refers to red-light therapy of a specific wavelength.
It sounds pretty esoteric, but actually it has been used by NASA to help plants grow in space and by farmers for breeding chicks and other livestock. But it has also been used therapeutically for humans, especially in the context of recovery from physical exercise.
I have heard from different interstitial cystitis sufferers and also other chronic pain sufferers that heat is one thing that can help with chronic pain flares. Low level laser therapy has the potential to not only offer potential relief through heat, but may also offer more benefits for relieving pain and inflammation above the temporary relief through heat.
How Low-Level Laser Therapy Works
To explain how red-light therapy works at a cellular level, let me briefly say a few words about cells:
Cells contain mitochondria, which are the ‘power-plants’ of the body. We need energy for pretty much anything, so this process is extremely important.
When we are sick, injured or are going through stress of some sort, mitochondria can produce excess of a chemical called nitric oxide. Oxygen is needed for energy production and nitric oxide competes with oxygen, thereby reducing energy production and resulting in oxidative damage. This is not a good thing.
Fortunately, red or near-infrared light can take nitric oxide out of the energy cycle, helping energy to be produced properly. This supports healthy cellular metabolism. When cells are healthy, we can see many benefits.
Potential Benefits for Chronic Pain and Inflammation
So where does chronic pain come from? There could be different reasons, but one of the main ones is inflammation and tissue damage.
The typical picture of a bladder of someone with interstitial cystitis, for example, is that of a red and inflamed bladder wall, sometimes with lesions.
Because of its effect on cells, low-level laser therapy could offer support for inflammation and tissue healing by:
- Increased collagen production, which is needed to repair skin and joints 
- Increased circulation through formation of new capillaries, enabling nutrient delivery to damaged tissue 
- Increased lymph system activity helping to clear toxins, waste and pro-inflammatory compounds 
Although yet again I could not find studies specifically evaluating the use of low-level laser therapy for interstitial cystitis/urinary tract pain, clinical studies have been done on other pain conditions – for example:
- Low-level lasers have been shown to be more effective for relieving dental hypersensitivity when compared to a topical desensitizer .
- Low-level laser therapy helped improve movement ability in people suffering from osteoarthritis affecting the knees .
- In patients with flexor tendon injury, Low-level laser therapy helped promote tendon healing, helped alleviate pain and helped support flexibility .
- In burn victims, low-level laser therapy has been shown to support skin healing . A small study also showed it to resolve psoriasis  – these are only some examples of its benefits for skin healing.
- One study also showed low-level laser therapy to support thyroid function and reduce autoimmunity in patients with autoimmune thyroid disease .
These are just some examples of potential benefits of red light therapy that can be found in the literature. As you can hopefully see, there is some substance behind this therapy.
With that in mind, I don’t see why it couldn’t be something that could be tried for other chronic pain conditions such as interstitial cystitis.
Which Lamps to Use
Just a heads up at this point that once again, I didn’t discover this therapy until my bladder issues had been resolved, so I can’t speak from personal experience. However, I used my lamp recently when I had back pain and it really helped!
I also built my own sauna using infrared lights, but that’s probably a topic for another day…
Light therapy has a good amount of research behind it, it’s easy to do at home, pretty low-risk and, depending on what type of lamp is being used, it’s also low-cost.
The two types of lights that can be used are infrared heat lamps or professional red LED light therapy devices.
The wavelength is important. The most beneficial wavelength ranges are from 630 nm to 670 nm and from 810 to 880 nm.
LED devices are probably more targeted to be in this wavelength but professional devices can cost up to a grand (or more), depending on size.
On the other hand, infrared light bulbs can be bought at hardware or pet shops and only cost in the region of a tenner. Their wavelength peaks at 1100 nm however, so isn’t consistently in the beneficial range, meaning treatment time has to be longer to reap the same benefits. These lamps can also get pretty hot, so one has to be careful not to burn (however, the heat can also be quite soothing).
Treatment time would last in the range of 5-20 minutes and should be done regularly over several weeks.
Personally, I just bought a cheap infrared heat lamp and have found this to work for reducing my backache. However, I haven’t tested a LED device so I can’t compare.
Have you tried light therapy before? Is it something you’d give a go? Let me know in the comments!
Pin it for later:
Nelson, Scott How Does Red Light Therapy Actually Work? Joovv https://joovv.com/blogs/joovv-blog/how-does-red-light-therapy-work
Mitchell, UH et al Low-level laser treatment with near-infrared light increases venous nitric oxide levels acutely: a single-blind, randomized clinical trial of efficacy. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2013 Feb;92(2):151-6. doi: 10.1097/PHM.0b013e318269d70a. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23334615
Nelson, Scott Infrared Heat Lamps vs. LED Light Therapy Devices Joovv https://joovv.com/blogs/joovv-blog/infrared-heat-lamps-vs-led-photobiomodulation-light-therapy-devices
- Ferraresi C et al Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) on muscle tissue: performance, fatigue and repair benefited by the power of light. Photonics Lasers Med. 2012 November 1; 1(4): 267–286. doi:10.1515/plm-2012-0032. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3635110/
- Emília de Abreu Chaves M et al Effects of low-power light therapy on wound healing: LASER x LED. An Bras Dermatol. 2014 Jul-Aug; 89(4): 616–623. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4148276/
- Hamblin, Michael Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation AIMS Biophys. 2017; 4(3): 337–361. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523874/
- Praveen, R. et al. Comparative Evaluation of a Low-Level Laser and Topical Desensitizing Agent for Treating Dentinal Hypersensitivity: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Conservative Dentistry : JCD 21.5 (2018): 495–499. PMC. Web. 17 Oct. 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6161530/
- Braghin, Roberta et al The effect of low-level laser therapy and physical exercise on pain, stiffness, function, and spatiotemporal gait variables in subjects with bilateral knee osteoarthritis: a blind randomized clinical trial Disability and Rehabilitation Published online: 16 Oct 2018 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09638288.2018.1493160
- Poorpezeshk, N. et al Early Low-Level Laser Therapy Improves the Passive Range of Motion and Decreases Pain in Patients with Flexor Tendon Injury. Photomed Laser Surg. 2018 Oct;36(10):530-535 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30300099
- Avci P, Gupta A, et al. Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) in skin: stimulating, healing, restoring. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Mar 2013; 32(1): 41-52. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4126803/
- Hofling DB, Chavantes MC, et al. Low-level laser in the treatment of patients with hypothyroidism induced by chronic autoimmune thyroiditis: a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Lasers in Surgery and Medicine. May 2013; 28(3): 743-53. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22718472