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Infrared Light Therapy: Chronic Pain Life Saver? And for Athletes

Updated: Oct 18, 2018

Pain affects millions of Americans – one out of three Americans is affected by chronic pain annually. It affects our attendance at school and work, as the number one reason for missing school or work is musculoskeletal pain. The main treatment options are currently NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen, aspirin), steroid injections and opiate pain medications. The first two are often of limited effectiveness and the latter carries a risk profile that makes it difficult to justify its use. In 2017 over 76,000 Americans overdosed on opiates, many of whom (possibly, a majority of whom) first received opiate pain medications from a doctor for pain. There is therefore a clear and present need for effective pain therapies which have an acceptable risk profile. Infrared light has been used clinically for over 40 and has been shown to reduce inflammation and edema, reduce pain and promote healing for a variety of clinical conditions. Infrared light therapy should be considered by anyone with chronic or occasional pain as an option to alleviate their burden, by helping the body naturally help itself.

Infrared light therapy is the application of light with a wavelength of light between approximately 660-905nm.[1] This wavelength range is chosen because light here can easily penetrate the skin and tissues. At low doses infrared light therapy has been shown to locally activate the immune system as well as signaling pathways that eventually give rise to an increase in growth factors, which promote healing.[2] Infrared therapy can enhance neovascularization (formation of new blood vessels) promote angiogenesis (extension of existing blood vessels) and increase the synthesis of collagen – the sum total effect of this is healing of acute and chronic wounds.[3] Interestingly, lower doses of infrared light might be more effective than higher doses. This effect has been observed in many studies, where the low doses of infrared light have demonstrated ability to heal nerves, bones, cartilage, tendons, and skin. It may also increase metabolism.

Infrared light therapy may help conditions like strains, sprains, whip-lash injury, post-surgical pain, muscular back pain, tendinitis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, frozen shoulder[4], generalized neck and back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, plantar fasciitis, dental pain, and even neuropathic pain conditions like post herpetic neuralgia and neuropathy associated with diabetes.

Applied with a sufficient intensity, infrared light therapy inhibits nerve signals associated with pain within 10-20 minutes of application. This inhibition is reversed within about 24 hours, so it’s best to apply treatment daily. Within 10 minutes of treatment not only is the activation threshold of pain causing nerves increased but there is a reduction in the release of pro-inflammatory neuropeptides, which are commonly a cause of chronic pain. It’s likely that there may be a central mechanism by which pain is decreased as it has been shown[5] that serotonin and endorphin (the natural opiates) levels are increased after exposure to infrared light. Pain relief is also achieved through a release (and reduction in) muscle spasms.

A few hours to days after use there is a reduction in local swelling and a corresponding decrease in inflammation. Effects get better over time, too – the tissue heals more and more with more use and these benefits can last for years.

An aid to exercise: Infrared light therapy may also aid in reducing fatigue and soreness of muscles and increase strength gains from resistance training. It is known[6] that infrared light can increase circulation in the body, which results in more oxygen being available for tissues and muscles, which can improve recovery and help muscles grow. This sort of light therapy is an effective tool for enhancing muscle strength too – it increases the number of repetitions and the time it takes to fatigue a muscle.

Infrared Light Therapy: Have you tried it yet? It can help you heal from your chronic pain – not merely cover up the pain, as opioids do, but both decrease your pain levels and actually increase healing by activating the body’s own healing properties – so that in the future, you can get back to your old freedom of movement, and not be strapped to an addictive drug for life. Infrared light therapy also offers something to athletes and those working out – it can greatly add to the natural recovery ability of your body after exercising and fascinatingly, even increase strength and time to fatigue of your muscles.

[1] B Cotler, H. (2015). The Use of Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT) For Musculoskeletal Pain. MOJ Orthopedics & Rheumatology, 2(5). doi:10.15406/mojor.2015.02.00068

[2] Effects of visible and near-infrared lasers on cell cultures. Lubart R, Wollman Y, Friedmann H, Rochkind S, Laulicht I / J Photochem Photobiol B. 1992 Feb 28; 12(3):305-10.

[3] Effects of laser irradiation at different wavelengths (660, 810, 980, and 1,064 nm) on mucositis in an animal model of wound healing. Usumez A, Cengiz B, Oztuzcu S, Demir T, Aras MH, Gutknecht N Lasers Med Sci. 2014 Nov; 29(6):1807-13.

[4] High-intensity versus low-level laser therapy in the treatment of patients with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial. Kheshie AR, Alayat MS, Ali MM Lasers Med Sci. 2014 Jul; 29(4):1371-6.

[5] GaAlAs (830 nm) low-level laser enhances peripheral endogenous opioid analgesia in rats. Hagiwara S, Iwasaka H, Okuda K, Noguchi T

Lasers Surg Med. 2007 Dec; 39(10):797-802.

[6] Limb blood flow after class 4 laser therapy.

Larkin KA, Martin JS, Zeanah EH, True JM, Braith RW, Borsa PA

J Athl Train. 2012 Mar-Apr; 47(2):178-83.

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