Light Therapy for Recovery: Get Back into Action Quickly
Recovery from surgery or injury can take weeks, and sometimes months. Even recovering from a hard workout can make it difficult to enjoy normal activities, let alone getting back into your sport. In this post we’ll explore the mechanisms of recovery, what can slow or prevent recovery, and how red light therapy recovery could be a way to get back to doing what you enjoy.
Why is it that some people bounce back quickly, while others languish in bed and miss out on work and fun? Although the recovery process is the same for everyone, the timeline and success rates differ widely. As you’ll see, if you can mitigate the four hindrances to recovery, you’ll be one of those who bounce back.
We’ll begin by discussing what actually goes on in the body during recovery from any physical trauma, with our discussion divided into three sections: muscle recovery, injury/surgery, and traumatic brain injury, including factors that can delay or prevent healing. Finally, we’ll discuss how red light can help get you back in the game of life or your sport.
Light Therapy for Muscle Injury Recovery
Intense exercise induces microscopic tears in muscle fibers. These tiny traumas activate the body's self-healing mechanisms, during which the muscles feel sore. This soreness can make it easier to choose a rest day instead of pushing through another workout.
According to Lance C. Dalleck Ph.D., who is a professor of exercise and sport science at Western Colorado University, the most important factor in recovery is restoring energy to muscle cells. In his paper titled, “The Science of Post-Exercise Recovery,” Dalleck describes the need for post-exercise recovery as it relates to energy production.
According to Dalleck, depleted muscle cells cannot function optimally; they can’t contract strongly and are slow to repair damage. Unless energy is restored, muscle cells will continue to perform poorly even after the damage to the cells is repaired.
The molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is produced by tiny “energy factories” known as mitochondria inside cells, provides immediate energy for muscle cells. Cellular energy is critical to muscle recovery: without energy, nothing happens, either in terms of restoring the ability of a muscle to perform or in repairing damage to the muscle.
ATP, however, is not stored in the muscles. It must be continually generated by mitochondria.
Once an individual cell has enough energy to perform its functions, muscle recovery can happen faster than if the cell is depleted. This is extremely important in muscle recovery and recovery from injury, as well as recovery from traumatic brain injury.
Along with insufficient time to allow muscle fibers to regenerate, and not enough cellular energy, several other factors can slow or prevent recovery. These include poor blood flow, chronic inflammation, inadequate collagen production, mitochondrial dysfunction, and stress.
As we discuss in a later section, red light can address all these factors, and even increase cellular energy production for faster recovery.
Recovery from Injury or Surgery
Surgery or injury is an assault on the body, and it upsets the balance of normal cellular functioning. This disruption includes the damage or death of a large number of cells. In response, the body sets in motion a series of repair processes that can include overcoming a disruption of blood supply or healing damage to nerves. Healing from injury can be very complex, and includes the following phases.
1. Hemostasis/Inflammatory Phase
During hemostasis, the body quickly seals any open wounds. Then, an acute inflammatory response mobilizes elements of the immune system to the area to prevent infection. Increased blood flow delivers nutrients, white blood cells, and oxygen; lymph vessels remove waste. This inflammation typically causes redness, pain, and swelling in the injured area.
Both hemostasis and the inflammatory response are critical to recovery.
The healing process continues with stimulation of cell production to replace damaged or destroyed cells, whether they’re muscle, skin, nerve, blood vessels, tendons, or other types. This phase amplifies collagen production since collagen is essential for the structure of connective tissue throughout the body.
In the case of an open wound, such as from surgery or a puncture wound, there will be an upsurge in collagen production to quickly close the wound. To learn more about this process, visit the PlatinumLED blog, and read our article about scars, including how they form and how red light can minimize scarring.
The repair phase can take anywhere from one to six weeks, depending on the severity of the injury and its location.
The final phase is the restoration/rebuilding phase. In the case of muscle strains, the body will repair damaged muscle fibers, which is what makes muscles stronger. In the case of wounds, skin, muscles, and nerves around the injury will start to regrow.
This step-by-step process of healing often involves pain and swelling, which is your body’s way of requesting that you abstain from normal activity since the injured areas are still weak and prone to re-injury. The tissue used to repair an injured area is not as strong as the original pre-injury tissue. Due to scarring and weakened restorative tissue, you may experience chronic instability, limited range of motion, and chronic pain.
At times, these phases and processes can seem unbearably slow. But it’s good to know what to expect and why things take as long as they do, so that you don’t try to push yourself too hard and too soon by resuming normal activities before your body is ready.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) refers to damage to the brain caused by an external force such as a fall or a blow to the head. TBIs are not caused by internal factors such as a stroke or tumor, or oxygen deprivation.
The brain consists of three to four pounds of spongy tissue encased in three layers of tough membranes. There is room in the skull for the brain to move—and in the case of a sudden impact, the brain can move with alarming velocity. Even within the protective casing of the skull, the brain can be stretched or compressed enough to cause serious damage.
A TBI can be mild or severe, localized, or widespread. When a brain injury occurs, especially at high speed, the brain often rotates violently, which can stretch and tear nerve cells and blood vessels. In addition, brain tissue can be damaged or destroyed.
In response to injury, the brain acts much like any other bodily tissue: It becomes inflamed. The brain fills with fluid and swells, which can lead to tremendous pressure inside the skull; and this pressure can further injure the brain.
A TBI disrupts the brain’s delicate chemistry, which can, directly and indirectly, affect communication within the brain. It can affect the central and peripheral nervous systems and cause cognitive, physical, and behavioral changes. Brain chemical imbalances can take weeks or months to resolve.
Fortunately, the brain has a quality of plasticity. It is actually designed to change, which means that in the case of disruptions in communication due to TBI, the brain can set up new connections between neurons.
The healing process for TBI can be complex and differs widely based on the injury. In general, it can go something like this:
- During the first few weeks following a TBI, the brain can swell, bleed, and alter its chemistry. A patient who has had this type of surgery may be confused and disoriented during this period and healing can seem painfully slow.
- The first six months usually reflect the greatest recovery. After that, the rate of improvement slows, but function can continue to improve for years after the injury. Some people experience mild to severe long-term effects of TBI.
The main challenges to recovery from TBI are poor mitochondrial functioning, or low-energy cells, and oxidative stress due to inflammation.
Delays to Recovery
As previously discussed, any type of injury can be hindered by factors such as:
- Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, which goes hand-in-hand and causes damage to cells;
- Disrupted blood supply to tissue, which can cause depletion of oxygen to cells. Without adequately oxygenated blood, affected cells may not be able to produce enough ATP, which the body needs to recover. ATP is one of the keys to accelerating recovery;
- Mitochondrial dysfunction, or the inability of the cells’ mitochondria to produce ATP;
- Inadequate collagen production: Collagen is present in muscle, as well as connective tissue including cartilage, bones, tendons, ligaments, and the skin.
If these four factors can be mitigated or eliminated, you can become one of those fortunate people who “bounce back” after an injury or surgery.
In the next section, we’ll cover how red light therapy can accelerate recovery from physical trauma, whether it’s a hard workout, surgery, musculoskeletal injury, or TBI. You can check our another blog on "red light therapy before or after workout".
Accelerating Recovery Using Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy is a technology that got its start in human health when NASA was studying its effects on plants growing in space. During experimental research, scientists discovered that not only did red light speed up photosynthesis in plants, but it also caused faster healing of lesions on their hands.
Red light therapy involves shining LED lights on bare skin to stimulate beneficial biological processes. It uses wavelengths of red light that range between 630 and 660 nanometers (nm), and near-infrared (NIR) light from 810 to 850nm. The term “red light therapy” encompasses both red and NIR light, and is also known as photobiomodulation (PBM) or low-level light therapy (LLLT).
Red light works at the cellular level, which is why it’s so effective at assisting all types of physical recovery. The effects of red light begin as soon as light photons enter the body’s tissues.
Reduced Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress wreak havoc on the body and brain, including causing mitochondrial dysfunction and slow recovery
A 2018 study co-authored by Dr. Michael Hamblin, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a world-renowned expert on red light therapy, focused on how red and near-infrared light therapy treatment affects the cellular stress in cells.
The study found that cellular metabolic activity is closely associated with how much oxidative stress the cells are under. The study also found that when NIR light therapy was applied to stressed cells, ATP production increased significantly.
Dr. Hamblin was also part of an earlier study that examined the use of PBM on human muscle tissue. Specifically, the researchers examined whether pre-conditioning muscles with red light before exercise and using red light therapy after a workout gives athletes a competitive edge due to faster recovery and increased sports performance.
The study reviewed 46 clinical trials that collectively involved more than 1,000 participants. All had used red light, NIR light, and/or red/NIR combinations. The researchers found that, in conjunction with training, study participants had increased muscle mass. Another finding was that they experienced decreased inflammation and oxidative stress in muscle, which prevents delayed onset muscle soreness and accelerates recovery.
The researchers stopped short of definitively declaring that red light therapy could give athletes a competitive edge, saying that more research was needed. But they found the results to be encouraging.
Whether from surgery, injury, or overused muscles, recovery relies on the circulatory system. Increased blood flow brings nutrients and oxygen to the affected area, and lymph (a fluid that circulates throughout the lymphatic system) removes waste to prevent further stress to the cells.
During a 2017 study, researchers from Vienna, Austria found that red light therapy promotes the growth of endothelial cells. These cells, which are present in both the cardiovascular system and the lymphatic system, line all blood vessels and control the flow of substances and fluid into and out of the tissue. Promoted growth improves circulation, which speeds up healing.
Enhancing Recovery with Red Light at Home
Red light therapy device is safe, non-invasive, highly effective and you do not have to be a rocket scientist to know how to use red light therapy at home as it is very simple to use. To get the most out of the technology, you’ll want to use a high-output LED device that delivers near-infrared light for optimal light photon absorption.
Please work with your doctor if you are treating a TBI or serious injury on your own, including using red light.
For muscle recovery or mild injuries, you will get the best results with a combination of red and NIR light. This is because NIR wavelengths are longer and penetrate more deeply, so you’ll get the benefits of red light therapy in every layer of tissue.
For muscle recovery or injury, simply get into a comfortable position where the LED device is around 6” from the treated area, and relax under the soothing warmth of the lights for 10 to 20 minutes several times per week.
Whole-Body Wellbeing with Red Light Therapy
In this article, we discussed how red light therapy recovery can get you back to living normally. You learned how it can accelerate and support recovery from intense workouts, injury/surgery, and TBI. But there’s so much more that this amazing therapy can do.
Red light therapy is emerging as an effective treatment for stroke and neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. It has been shown to help with PTSD, severe depression, and dementia, and has dozens of clinically proven applications.
Check out the PlatinumLED blog to see how red light therapy can help with weight loss, neuropathy, back pain, hair loss, brain fog, sleep disorders, acne, and much more.