Living Pain-Free with Near-Infrared Light Therapy for Neuropathy
If you experience numbness or loss of sensation in your hands, feet, or other parts of the body, or suffer from sharp stabbing pain, you may have a nervous system condition known as neuropathy. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke writes: “Symptoms of neuropathy range from mild to disabling and may include a loss of reflexes, problems feeling pain or changes in temperature, numbness and tingling, and pain that is often worse at night. Symptoms may develop over days, weeks, or years.”
Treatment for neuropathy is often focused on anti-inflammatory drugs that work by interrupting pain pathways in order to relieve pain and prevent further nerve damage. Unfortunately, few cases of neuropathy can be cured and not all cases can be effectively treated.
There is hope, however, that you can regain your quality of life with a remarkable treatment for this condition: light therapy. In this article we will focus on how near-infrared light therapy can help relieve pain and restore feeling in numb areas for those who suffer from neuropathy.
But first, let’s do a quick recap of the condition.
A Recap of Neuropathy
Neuropathy (short for peripheral neuropathy) refers to damage or dysfunction of the peripheral nervous system, which includes nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. Neuropathy causes a great deal of pain and suffering for those who have it. Although the exact number of neuropathy patients is not known, the condition is believed to affect an estimated 10 percent of the U.S. population.
The human nervous system looks somewhat like a jellyfish: The “body" of the jellyfish is the brain (part of the central nervous system), with incredibly long “tentacles” (nerves) extending all the way through the body into the toes and fingertips (the peripheral nervous system).
Signals from the nerves in the skin have to travel back and forth a long way, extremely quickly: when you burn your hand on the stove, for example, the intense heat sensation has to travel all the way to the brain, be processed, and cause you to retract your hand—and this happens in milliseconds.
When you suffer from neuropathy, these sensory and motor signals are either blocked or dysfunctional. You may feel the heat (and associated pain) but are unable to move your hand away from it quickly enough to avoid a severe burn. Or, you may not perceive that the stove is hot at all.
Or, the slightest sensation of heat sends you into spasms of pain. Tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness signal damaged or severed sensory or motor nerves; and highly exaggerated sensations such as feelings of pressure where there is none, and intense pain from even a feather-light touch, signal sensory nerve dysfunction. The pain can be quite severe, often described as stabbing or burning.
Current Neuropathy Treatment Options
Treating neuropathic pain or numbness is fairly straightforward if there is a clear cause, such as poor ergonomics that lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Treatment is more complicated, however, when there is a more complex underlying condition such as diabetes or chronic inflammation.
Treatment goals for diabetic peripheral neuropathy focuses on slowing the progression of diabetes, pain relief, managing complications such as muscle weakness, and restoring function and mobility.
If neuropathic pain is caused by chronic inflammation, the first step toward relief is treating inflammation.
Once all inflammation and primary causes are slowed or stopped, the key to improving neuropathic conditions is restoring normal nerve function. And one of the best ways to support this restoration is the use of light therapy.
Activating the Body's Self-Healing Mechanism Using Near-Infrared Light
It’s not easy for the body to regrow nerve cells, but it is possible. If the nerve cell itself is still alive, nerve fibers have a chance to regenerate, which can restore more normal nervous system communications and sensory functionality.
Neuropathy is caused by damaged axons (nerve fibers) that disrupt cell sensation signals and cause pain or loss of feeling.
Eliminating underlying causes such as inflammation can prevent future nerve damage. If damage is already present (whether from injury or inflammation) In the case of nerve damage, there is a gap between healthy nerve cells and the damaged axons (nerve fibers) in an affected area. Closing that gap is needed to restore nerve functioning. And that happens when Schwann cells and fibroblasts—two cells stimulated by light therapy—come into play.
Schwann Cells and Fibroblasts
Schwann cells and fibroblasts are the superstars of the body’s natural healing mechanisms.
Regenerating the connectivity in damaged nerves relies on Schwann cells, a highly specialized type of cell (much like stem cells) in the peripheral nervous system that mobilizes in response to injury. Schwann cells are essential to the health of the peripheral nervous system, and play a crucial role in nerve development, function, maintenance, and regeneration. Schwann cells also form the myelin sheath, which is a protective layer that forms around nerves and allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells.
In order for Schwann cells to do their work, they require the assistance of fibroblasts, which are cells found in connective tissue. The primary role of fibroblasts is to produce collagen and other fibers that are necessary for re-joining severed or damaged tissue.
In the case of neuropathy, fibroblasts signal Schwann cells and stimulate them into forming a type of cord that rejoins the healthy nerve cells to damaged axons. This in turn guides the axons to regrow around an injured area and for a protective myelin sheath to form to surround the newly restored nerves.
Schwann cells and fibroblasts work in concert to repair nerve damage, and near-infrared light can support this process.
Red and Near-Infrared Light Therapy Basics
Red light therapy has its origins in the healing properties of natural sunlight. The sun has been seen as a healing force for millennia, curing conditions like Seasonal Affective Disorder and chronic skin conditions. Today, we understand that the body is highly reactive to light, and that each wavelength of light has unique effects on the human body.
Modern science has narrowed light therapy into what's colloquially known as the "therapeutic window" of red and near-infrared light: the wavelengths of light with the greatest number of clinically proven benefits.
Red light therapy is an umbrella term that includes the most beneficial red wavelengths of light (630-660nm) and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths (820-850nm) for pain relief, including neuropathic pain, reducing inflammation, and increasing blood flow which can help speed up healing.
Technically, near-infrared light is part of the infrared spectrum. The wavelengths used for therapeutic applications are called near-infrared: these wavelengths absorb into the skin and stimulate cellular metabolism. However, they do not generate dangerous heat like far-infrared wavelengths do. Instead, they’re safe and highly beneficial for a wide variety of applications.
How Does Red and NIR Light Therapy Work?
Red light therapy uses medical-grade light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to deliver concentrated wavelengths of red and/or near-infrared light to your skin.
Red light therapy stimulates the production of energy within cells that are exposed to the light, which sparks a positive ripple effect in a process similar to how plants convert sunlight into energy. The primary cellular fuel of human cells is called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). When light photons are soaked up by mitochondria (the energy centers within cells), ATP production increases, which has a powerful stimulating effect on the cells in the body part being treated.
When you look at the difference in how you feel or how you perform at work when you're full of energy versus when you're just dragging along, you can see how stimulating cellular energy can powerfully impact cells’ ability to perform at their best.
Red and near-infrared light therapy improves bodily function at the cellular level, which promotes natural healing for all parts of the body.
Red light therapy (630nm to 660nm) is best known for its rejuvenating effect on skin. It is widely used to treat fine lines and wrinkles, hair loss, and chronic skin disorders like psoriasis. Three mechanisms are primarily responsible for these effects: increased cellular energy, increased blood flow, and increased collagen and elastin production.
Near-infrared wavelengths absorb deeper into the body and can even penetrate bone. These longer wavelengths (810nm to 850nm) are used to treat a huge variety of acute and chronic conditions, without side effects. For example, NIR light:
- Promotes muscle recovery from intense exercise and/or injury
- Relieves inflammation and pain in joints and muscles
- Stimulates healthy bone growth
- Accelerates wound healing
- Stimulates formation of new capillaries, which enhances blood flow
- Reduces oxidative stress in the brain and assists in treating traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
The PlatinumLED blog is a great resource for discovering the ways that near-infrared light therapy can be used to promote overall health and wellbeing.
How Near-Infrared Light Helps Treat Peripheral Nerve Damage
Red and NIR therapy support your body's natural healing processes, including nerve cell repair.
NIR light is one of the most exciting discoveries in the treatment of peripheral neuropathy. Nerve cells respond well to the biostimulating effects of NIR light, making it an effective therapy for inflammatory pain as well as neuropathic pain.
- As mentioned before, fibroblasts are critical to the regeneration of nerves. Near-infrared light has a stimulating effect on fibroblast growth.
- It also acts as an antioxidant, which researchers have found to be conducive to nerve regeneration. (Oxidative stress leads to inflammation, which interferes with nerve functioning).
- NIR light therapy reduces inflammation, which may be a key cause of peripheral neuropathy and a side-effect of diabetes.
- NIR light therapy stimulates production of nitric oxide. Not to be confused with the anesthetic nitrous oxide, nitric oxide contributes to vasodilation, or relaxation of the inner muscles of the blood vessels. Vasodilation allows blood vessels to widen and increase circulation. The greater your circulatory capacity, the more nutrients and oxygen are available to all parts of the body; and the greater the body's capacity for removing waste which may contribute to inflammation.
- NIR stimulates energy production within the cells.
The mechanism of relieving neuropathic pain using near-infrared light primarily relies on stimulating the body’s own healing mechanisms through increased cellular energy and reduced inflammation. But the big question is ...
Does NIR Light Really Work?
Due to the lack of studies specific to light therapy and neuropathic pain, near-infrared light should not be considered a cure for peripheral neuropathy. It’s safe to say, however, that the therapy can assist with the healing process of regenerating damaged nerves and in promoting pain relief because of its ability to reduce chronic inflammation.
In one study, near-infrared light was used to ease the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome and a variety of other conditions. NIR light was also used to successfully treat non-neuropathic pain caused by acute and chronic non-fracture musculoskeletal injuries, chronic knee injury pain, plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, shin splints, and acute hand and wrist sprains. Study participants reported 40% to 100% reduction in pain, often within hours of treatment. Best of all, the pain reduction lasted weeks and even months later, with no adverse side effects or complications.
Using NIR Light at Home to Treat Neuropathy
Best of all, you can safely treat neuropathic pain at home using NIR light. But be sure to purchase a high-quality device, so you’re sure to get the best results. Small, generic panels have flooded the market, but they’re not powerful enough to be effective, especially when attempting to use them on a condition deep in the body. As you’re looking around at panels, here’s what to look for to make sure you’re looking at a quality device.
When shopping for a light therapy device, make sure to consider size, light energy output, and wavelengths used.
Since neuropathy refers to very long nerve cells and nerve conduction disorders may not be localized (in some cases, damage may have occurred in multiple points along a nerve) it makes sense to expose a larger part of the body to near-infrared light. The larger the device, the larger the area you can irradiate in one session. For widespread neuropathy, larger devices are the way to go. If your neuropathy is localized (such as in the feet) then a small panel may be just right for you.
Red and Near-infrared Wavelengths
Today, you can get medical-grade, FDA-approved light-emitting diode (LED) therapy devices that emit red light, near-infrared light, and a combination of both.
Treating neuropathy with both red and NIR wavelengths can give you more systemic relief: red light can stimulate nerve health in and just under the skin (for example, in fingers and the soles of the feet), while NIR light works on nerves that are deeper in the body, such as those in the intestines, bladder, and heart.
High Light Energy Output
The key to success with red light therapy is using high-output LED bulbs that deliver the highest possible amount of photo energy or light energy. You may have seen masks, wands, and even foot wraps that are marketed as therapy devices for neuropathy, but most of these products are underpowered, meaning only a tiny fraction of the light photons emitted are available to absorb into your body. In short, any cheap device (especially one that is battery-powered) is likely a waste of money.
The greatest benefits of red light therapy come with time, since the modality works on a cellular level. Nerve cells, like all other cells in the body, require time to repair or regenerate themselves. Since all cells don't regenerate at the same time, this process may take one to four months depending on the severity and extent of the nerve damage.
However, you can apply red light therapy to treat pain or numbness on any part of your body with short sessions of just 10 to 20 minutes at a time, three to five days per week.
Many people enjoy doing a short meditation while administering red light therapy. This gives the body an extra boost in wellness, since meditation relieves stress that may be contributing to chronic conditions, including inflammation.
Let Near-Infrared Light Help You Feel Normal Again
Losing sensation in a limb or any other part of your body can be unsettling or even terrifying. And the stabbing, stinging feeling of hyper-aroused nerve endings makes it difficult to enjoy normal activities. Treating neuropathy with red light LED devices may be the answer you’re seeking to get you feeling like yourself again and regain your quality of life
To get the highest quality devices with the most powerful light energy output on the market, explore the PlatinumLED BIO series, which offers a choice between red- and NIR light or a combination of both, and the PlatinumLED BIOMAX series, which offers a full-spectrum red/NIR array using the most scientifically validated wavelengths for overall health.