What to Expect From Laser Therapy: Purpose, Procedure, and Risks
If you’re thinking about undergoing laser therapy, you should know exactly what to expect. Here is everything you need to know about the purpose, procedure, and risks of laser therapy.
Do you know what the most common reason for visiting a doctor is?
It isn’t the flu or ear infections. No, more Americans visit their physicians to treat chronic pain every year than for any other reason.
One out of three Americans suffers from chronic pain at some point during their lives. Presently, those people receive one of three standard treatments including steroid injections, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or a combination of prescription opiates and surgery.
Each of these treatments come with its own set of side effects and even risks.
Fortunately, there’s another way.
Laser therapy, or cold laser therapy, is a painless and inexpensive alternative to the standard prescription drug treatments. Although it’s new on the chronic pain scene, it has been used for over forty years to reduce inflammation and promote musculoskeletal healing.
Are you looking for an alternative pain solution that doesn’t come with the risks of opioids or the side effects of steroids? Keep reading to learn more about how doctors use laser therapy to treat chronic pain.
What Is Cold Laser Therapy?
Cold laser therapy uses low-intensity lasers to stimulate healing in your muscular-skeletal system.
Laser therapy is often referred to as “cold” because surgical lasers used in operations, like tumor removal, emit a hot light. The light used in the healing therapy doesn’t heat body tissue, which means its less disruptive and less painful.
While laser therapy or cold laser therapy is the most commonly used term, you might also hear the procedure referred to as:
- Low-power laser therapy
- Low-level laser therapy
- Soft laser biostimulation
Each of these applies to a different type of process, but all fall under the cold laser therapy umbrella of pain treatments.
What Is a Laser?
A laser is a tool that creates light using a process called optical amplification.
The International Engineering Consortium places a laser into one of four categories according to the amount of danger presented:
- Class 1/1M
- Used in CD players
- Class 2/2M
- Used in laser pointers
- Class 3R/3B
- Used in cold laser therapy (and CD/DVD writers)
- Class 4
- Used in surgical lasers
The average 3R or 3B laser might feature a power range of 10mW to 500 mW.
What Injuries Does Laser Therapy Treat?
Minor to moderate muscular injuries treated by physical therapy and sports medicine practitioners respond best to laser treatment. The healing power of the lasers is well suited to reducing swelling in joints and soft tissue while encouraging tissue repair.
These are the most commonly treated injuries include:
- Neck pain
- Lower back pain
- Tennis elbow
- Knee pain
- Muscle strains
- Ligament sprains
- Muscle spasm issues
Muscular injuries aren’t the only injuries that benefit from laser treatment. Inflammation or degradation of many tissues may seem improvement with this therapy.
For example, the use of lasers has also transformed eye surgery as lasers have been deployed as ophthalmologists have learned more about the benefits of Lasik.
Other areas lasers might be applied are:
- Wound healing
- Skin rejuvenation
- Spinal cord injuries
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
The use of the therapy for these issues doesn’t benefit from the same amount of research, but the body of literature will continue to grow over the next few years.
What Is the Procedure Like?
Cold laser therapy is a non-invasive and painless procedure.
During your treatment, your therapist uses the low-level laser on a target area and applies it directly. Your body absorbs the red and near-infrared light, which creates a reaction that stimulates the healing process.
Each session lasts only a few minutes, but it may take several courses before patients begin to feel the effects of the laser.
Some people report feeling nothing during the session, but others find that laser produces a warmth that soothes tired or stressed muscles. The sensation often depends on what treatment head the therapist attaches to the laser as well as the strength setting of the laser itself.
It’s important to remember that cold laser therapy doesn’t heal the injury or source of pain directly. It relieves some pain while also accelerating the body’s ability to heal itself.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for chronic pain relief currently available.
How Does the Procedure Stimulate Healing?
How can a laser encourage your tissues to heal faster?
It’s not magic – it’s biology.
The low-energy lasers produce light that directs irradiation to your cells. Cellular processes, like healing, are modulated by the effects of the lasers because they activate the mitochondrial respiratory chain.
Mitochondria are a vital part of the cell. They produce 95 percent of a cell’s energy to fuel cellular activity, which includes two phases of healing after an injury.
While skeletal muscles can use processes to heal on their own, it might take more time and cause more pain than a person could or should live with. Studies show that when the mitochondria are more active during the early phase of healing, they encourage the process.
To that end, inhibiting the ability of mitochondria to function at that time also slows down the healing of the muscle fibers.
In other words, mitochondria play an essential role in healing. By using low-level lasers to stimulate mitochondrial function, it’s possible to encourage or even potentially speed up healing while relieving pain.
How Can It Be Adapted to Treat My Pain?
The therapy sounds simple, but its effectiveness relies on the targeted delivery of the treatment. Your doctor adjusts the course of treatment according to your injury’s:
Each laser offers a power range to create a custom treatment option for your pain. For example, the clinician might set the laser to 0.5 W for a slow treatment or might turn it up to 25 W for maximum power and effect.
Laser therapy isn’t a one size fits all treatment. Much as a doctor would prescribe a set prescription dosage, so too would they set a laser strength and session length according to the nature of your injury or pain.
What Does the Science Say?
Laser therapy is highly regarded among pain researchers as being not only a less risky way of treating pain but an inexpensive method as well compared to other methods.
While the use cold laser therapy is considered to be effective, it’s noted that the therapy itself must fall within specific parameters to be effective.
Ultimately, studies show that above all it’s important to be realistic about the use of laser therapy for pain relief. While it does relieve pain and encourage biological healing processes, the process doesn’t work overnight.
Still, it benefits from both a long history and a strong foundation of scientific evidence, which means that both the knowledge and practice of this therapy is likely to improve.
What Are the Risks of Laser Surgery?
So far, the therapy doesn’t lend to any severe side effects when appropriately applied. Because the laser doesn’t heat the tissue, the risk of burning or associated pain is low.
However, it is vitally important to avoid looking directly at the laser. Infrared light might injure or damage your eyesight over time. Your doctor should provide the appropriate safety instructions and equipment when necessary.
While the FDA hasn’t flagged any serious risks or side effects for an otherwise healthy person, keep in mind that your doctor might discuss other potential risks depending on your personal medical history.
Most people, including the elderly, tolerate laser therapy. However, some contraindications do exist.
Cold laser therapy may be used to treat chronic pain in cancer patients, but it should never be used on or near malignant tumors.
Pregnant women – or women who are trying to conceive – should consult their physician before beginning a course of therapy. The laser should never target a treatment area directly over a developing fetus.
People with epilepsy may also be at risk of seizure if they are photosensitive. The low-frequency laser produces a pulsed visible light that may trigger a seizure.
Is Laser Therapy Right for Me?
Laser therapy is a tool available to chronic pain patients and those with muscular injuries who prefer treatment without the risks of prescription medication.
Unlike prescription steroids or opioids, the therapy doesn’t come with a long list of risks, contraindications, or side effects. It’s often suitable for the elderly, sick, and pregnant women as long as the laser isn’t applied directly to a developing fetus.
Laster therapy won’t provide immediate relief, but it does go further. It stimulates the mitochondria in your cells to encourage your body to heal faster naturally.
Are you looking for alternative options for pain relief? Would you consider cold laser therapy?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.