Ease Arthritis Pain and Inflammation with Red Light Therapy
- If you’re among the 54 million Americans who experience the pain and loss of mobility due to arthritis, you know how frustrating and debilitating the disease can be. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of adult arthritis sufferers are under 65, although the risk increases markedly as people get older.
If this sounds like you, it’s more important than ever to find a solution that is effective and safe. Numerous studies have shown that red light therapy for arthritis shows great promise as a treatment. This article explores what red light therapy is, how it works, and how it can help ease your pain. We’ll start by taking a look at arthritis and how it affects those who suffer from it.
An Overview of the Types of Arthritis
There are more than 100 types of arthritis, with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis being the most common. Typical symptoms include stiffness, pain, tenderness, swelling, redness, sensations of heat, and loss of mobility. Arthritis sufferers may also experience fatigue, weight loss, and weakness.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, meaning one in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. An estimated 31 million Americans suffer from this form of arthritis. RA attacks joints, primarily the fingers, wrists, feet, and toes, causing mild to severe joint pain, inflammation, stiffness, and reduced mobility.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. It is a degenerative disorder caused by wear and tear on the joints; hence, its nickname, the “wear and tear arthritis.” Although knee OA is very common in the senior population, it often has origins much earlier in life. According to the Mayo Clinic, of the 14 million people who have knee osteoarthritis in the USA, about 2 million are under the age of 45.
The Mayo Clinic also reports that 80% of injured football players will develop OA within 10 to 30 years of the injuries, and 50% of people who damage knee cartilage or ligaments will develop it within 10 to 20 years. OA primarily affects the knees, but can also develop in the fingers, hips, toes, and spine.
Common Arthritis Treatments Aren’t Always Effective
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) don’t offer complete pain relief, and long-term use has been connected with side effects such as kidney damage, stroke, and heart attacks. Whether you have osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or one of the less common types, you may experience mild to severe pain, inflammation, swelling, stiffness, and loss of joint mobility. Since there is currently no cure, the only option is to manage symptoms. Unfortunately, however, most methods fall short of providing relief.
Lifestyle changes such as weight loss and exercise can help, although even elite athletes develop OA.
Dietary modifications and herbal supplements are only partially effective, and all herbs and supplements carry the risk of overdose.
Some people turn to acupuncture or other alternative therapies, but little research exists on these methods to determine their effectiveness.
Surgery such as joint replacement or joint fusion carries risks that may outweigh the benefits.
Fortunately, a growing body of peer-reviewed clinical research shows that red/near-infrared (NIR) light has significant therapeutic effects on arthritis symptoms.
Does Sunlight Work for Arthritis?
Sun exposure can help relieve arthritic pain, especially from psoriatic arthritis. But you must be careful to limit exposure for your skin's sake.
Vitamin D is also beneficial for autoimmune disorders like RA. Sun exposure has been shown to minimize lesions due to psoriatic arthritis, a form of arthritis that affects some people with the chronic, inflammatory skin disorder known as psoriasis. Sunshine is also a mood-booster, which can help decrease the perception of pain. Red light therapy, which is also called photobiomodulation or low-level laser therapy, has roots in solar therapy, or the practice of using sunlight to heal. For centuries, healers have recommended exposure to the sun to heal a variety of ailments. A major reason is that sunlight helps the body synthesize vitamin D, which is essential for absorbing and retaining the bone-building nutrients, calcium and phosphorus.
As beneficial as natural sunlight can be, however, over-exposure is not a good solution for pain because it is hazardous. Sunlight contains ultraviolet wavelengths of light that are harmful and have been linked to skin cancer and macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of vision loss in older people. Sun exposure must be limited and carefully monitored; and how much is too much depends on the individual.
Red Light Therapy: A Safe, Natural Alternative
The term red light refers to a therapy that uses a narrow spectrum of visible light (red light and NIR light, which are a part of the natural spectrum of sunlight) to create beneficial changes in cellular activity. Red light is safe and gentle, and known for its therapeutic benefits without the side effects of sun exposure. The most therapeutic wavelengths for reducing pain and inflammation due to arthritis range from 600–860 nm (red and NIR light).
Red light therapy stimulates cellular energy production, leading to a host of benefits, including reduced inflammation, improved collagen production, and more.
Red light therapy and its natural healing effects are well-documented. Here’s how it works. As red light penetrates the skin you feel a gentle warmth, which is soothing. But the real benefits occur at the cellular level, where the light stimulates a chain reaction of positive biological processes that can lead to a significant reduction in inflammation—and ultimately, restored and more comfortable joint function.
Red Light Stimulates Mitochondrial Energy Production
Mitochondria are the tiny energy centers within each cell in the body. Performing like the “batteries” of cells, mitochondria fuel all cellular processes, and they are highly responsive to light. The stimulation of mitochondria in human cells is very similar to the process of photosynthesis in plants.
As red and NIR photons enter the cells, they stimulate the production of a high-energy molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which energizes cells. More cellular energy equals better performance, much the same as you perform at your best when you’re filled with energy. Peak cellular functioning is critical to overall health, a strong immune system, reduced inflammation, physical energy, and longevity.
Hormesis refers to the beneficial effects of a stressor that at a higher intensity would be harmful. When we exercise, for instance, microscopic tears form in our muscle fibers.
Through the healing of these tiny tears, our muscles become stronger and larger. On a cellular level, exercise leads to a temporary increase in free radicals, which are unstable molecules that cause damage to proteins, cells, and DNA.
In response to this temporary spike in free radicals, the body adapts with increased blood circulation and increased mitochondrial activity, downregulation of genes involved in inflammation, and upregulation of genes involved in energy production. In short, red light therapy activates many of the same cell-level responses as exercise, essentially stimulating the body to repair itself.
Acute inflammation is a part of the natural healing process, but chronic inflammation causes delays in healing and can lead to autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. Chronic inflammation must be reduced in order to promote healing.
Red light reduces inflammation by stimulating cellular repair and regeneration. NIR light absorbs deep into the body’s tissues to reduce inflammation in knees and other joints affected by arthritis.
Increased Collagen Production
Collagen is a protein that is most often associated with the appearance of skin. It is also an important component in muscles and connective tissue including cartilage, which is the connective tissue in joints. The principal function of cartilage is to connect bones and provide a smooth, lubricated surface that allows joints to bend. It also cushions joints so they can carry the weight of the body without damage to the bones. Collagen makes up about 60% of cartilage, so increasing collagen production can help heal damage to cartilage in knees and other joints.
Exposure to red and NIR light is an effective way to stimulate collagen production, as revealed during a 2014 clinical trial. A 2017 study found that red light helps increase the regeneration and thickness of cartilage and reduce osteoarthritis pain. Researchers have also discovered that red light successfully treated tears in the meniscus, which is cartilage in the knee joints.
Increased Blood Flow
Increasing blood flow helps bring nutrients and oxygen to an affected area, and removes waste materials that may contribute to inflammation. Red light therapy stimulates the formation of capillaries in parts of the body irradiated by the light.
To summarize, red light has a bioactive effect on the body. Its healing effects are not thermal, although patients do feel the sensation of warm, soothing heat. But the real benefit of red light therapy is at the cellular level—its ability to stimulate photochemical reactions in cells, which increases cellular energy production that sparks a positive chain reaction in various bodily systems and functions.
Now that you know how red light therapy works on the body, here’s an overview of studies that support this treatment as a way to ease symptoms and restore normal joint mobility and functioning.
Studies Show Red Light Works for Osteoarthritis
This section explores specific studies that support using red light therapy as an effective treatment for arthritis.
Osteoarthritis Knee Pain
Knee pain can severely diminish quality of life, preventing normal activities and making even the act of sitting down or standing up painful and difficult. As mentioned previously, knee pain is not always a function of age, as osteoarthritis also affects young, active people. Here are several studies that are important to this topic:
Since severe cases may require a complete knee replacement, it’s encouraging to know that adding red light therapy to conventional physical therapy for treating knee arthritis can successfully postpone the need for joint replacement surgery, as revealed in this 2015 study.
Patients receiving red light therapy in conjunction with exercise have shown increased range of motion.
In one study, elderly patients with degenerative osteoarthritis receiving red and infrared treatment saw a measurable reduction in pain after ten days. The researchers noted that participants in both groups reported a 50% reduction in reduction after the treatment.
After just seven days of treatment, patients reported significant pain reduction after receiving red light therapy on their knees.
Short-term effects in pain reduction and increased joint mobility were observed in a study of men and women with osteoarthritic pain whose knees were irradiated with NIR light.
Patients with knee osteoarthritis who were treated with red light therapy and had increased thickness of synovial and femoral cartilage.
In a 2018 clinical trial, a combination of red light and ultrasound therapy reduced knee pain and improved physical functionality after three months.
Short-term application of red light therapy to specific acupuncture points in conjunction with exercise and advice effectively reduced pain and improved the quality of life in patients with knee osteoarthritis.
Red light can also decrease general chronic knee pain that is unrelated to arthritis.
While red light therapy should not be considered a cure for osteoarthritis, it shows great promise as a treatment that increases the thickness of knee cartilage, reduces inflammation, and eases pain.
Osteoarthritis Finger and Wrist Pain
Loss of function, swelling, deformity, and pain in the fingers and wrists can be disabling and may interfere with an individual’s employment as well as overall enjoyment of life. Many studies point to red light therapy’s ability to ease symptoms, which over time may allow patients to resume normal activities. Two of the most important studies are the following:
A 2016 study found red light to be a safe and effective therapy that reduced pain and swelling and increased joint mobility in patients afflicted with Heberden's and Bourchard's osteoarthritis, a type of arthritis that causes severe swelling and deformity of joints. After five to seven treatments, patients’ pain and ring sizes decreased, and they experienced an increased range of motion.
A single application of red light therapy led to significant reductions in inflammatory cytokines 24 hours later. The function of cytokines, which are proteins released by cells, relates to the interactions and communications between cells. This includes pain signals, as certain cytokines have been linked to chronic pain and inflammation.
Osteoarthritis Neck, Jaw, Shoulder, and Back Pain
Even the tiny joints in the neck and back vertebrae can be affected by osteoarthritis. Although less common than in the joints of the hands, feet, and knees, some people develop arthritis in the jaw. Fortunately, red light therapy has been demonstrated to work for many types of osteoarthritis:
A team of Canadian researchers found that red light was effective in reducing pain and improving function in acute radiculopathy (pinched nerve), cervical osteoarthritis, and acute neck pain.
Red light therapy reduced pain immediately after treatment for acute neck pain; and in chronic neck pain, the relief lasted up to 22 weeks after treatment was completed.
A 2016 study with rodents found that red light therapy could enhance tissue repair in the temporomandibular joints, which are the two joints connecting the jawbone to the skull.
During a study conducted at a university in Sparta, Greece, red light therapy was found to relieve musculoskeletal pain in an inflammatory condition called frozen shoulder.
Infrared wavelengths (800-1200nm) were used successfully as a treatment for low back pain not related to arthritis. This suggests that the deeper penetration of NIR light (810, 830, and 850nm) may be effective in treating back pain due to osteoarthritis.
Ankylosing spondylitis is a disease that can cause vertebrae to fuse, making the spine less flexible and contributing to a hunched-forward posture. Although not directly related to arthritis, it is an inflammatory disease that may be helped with NIR. In a 2016 study, the combination of red light therapy and stretching decreased pain in patients with ankylosing spondylitis.
Using Red Light to Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis
The studies discussed thus far used red and NIR light therapy to treat osteoarthritis symptoms. But what about rheumatoid arthritis? The treatment of RA is complex and ongoing since the root cause must be addressed in order for symptoms to go into remission.
This study revealed that red light therapy can modulate the inflammatory response in early and late progression stages of RA.
A controlled trial found that red light therapy reduced RA pain by 70% compared with the placebo group. Patients also saw a significant decrease in morning stiffness and increases in palm flexibility.
Red light therapy has been found to reduce the presence of IL-20, an important proinflammatory cytokine in RA.
Although there are few studies specific to red light therapy and rheumatoid arthritis, the promising results with osteoarthritis, specifically in the reduction of inflammation, suggest that red light may indeed offer long-term relief from RA and potentially other inflammatory disorders.
What About Infrared Light?
Infrared (IR) light has a wavelength of more than 900 nm, which is longer than NIR light. It is a type of radiant energy that is invisible to the human eye: Instead of perceiving light, we perceive IR light as heat.
Infrared saunas are popular ways to enhance health, reduce inflammation, and relieve pain. However, IR has one important drawback that makes it unsuitable for self-administered treatment: the possibility of burns. Skin exposed to IR light may feel burned, and prolonged IR light exposure is also harmful to the eyes. Although we can’t see IR light, the heat effectively “bakes” the eyes, causing damage.
If you are interested in using infrared light therapy for arthritis, it is recommended that a doctor administer the treatments to ensure safety.
How To Use NIR and Red Light for Arthritis
High quality LED panels make it possible to enjoy the benefits of red light therapy from the comfort of your own home
Thanks to advances in technology, red light devices are now more powerful and effective than ever. These devices use high-output LED bulbs to provide high levels of irradiation that absorbs deeply into the body’s tissues. Today, you can find high quality LED panels that make it much more convenient and cost-effective to self-administer red light therapy in the comfort and convenience of home.
Based on the unique benefits of red and NIR light, it’s the combination of the two that delivers the most potent benefits in treating pain and inflammation.
The therapeutic benefits of red light are mostly concentrated on the surface of the skin since red light is only absorbed into the skin and subcutaneous layers. However, since joints such as knuckles, knees, and elbows are not deep in the body, red light can promote cell-level healing and collagen production that can create healthy joints from inside out.
NIR light absorbs deeper into the body, including bones and connective tissue. Its main benefit is reducing inflammation, which will reduce morning stiffness and offer relief from swelling and tenderness.
Treat Arthritis at Home Using Red and NIR Light Devices
Before self-administering red light therapy for joint pain and enhance your health, please consult with a doctor who can guide you and offer additional therapies such as specific exercises or painkillers.
Invest in a quality device that delivers the highest possible light output (also known as irradiance) to ensure that the red light absorbs deeply into the body’s tissues. Avoid low-powered masks, wands, and wraps—you will not get the results you want.
Combine both red (630nm and 660nm) and NIR (810nm, 830nm, and 850nm) to achieve the maximum therapeutic results—and only one device on the market does that: the PlatinumLED BIOMAX series. Learn about it here.
Choose the right panel. A large panel (or several panels stacked together) can irradiate more of the body to treat the skin and improve overall health. Smaller panels deliver targeted therapeutic red light to hands, feet, elbows, knees, and hips.
Expose bare skin to the light for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, three to five times per week for one to four months initially, or until symptoms ease. Since red light therapy isn’t a cure, you may need ongoing maintenance treatments to prevent the condition from flaring up again. These maintenance sessions can be the same duration (10-20 minutes), but you will likely only need one to four sessions per week.
Get Your Joints Moving Again with Red Light!
Clinical research has shown that red light therapy has positive effects in treating joint pain, swelling, inflammation, loss of mobility, tenderness, and deformity. Its far-reaching health benefits make quality LED panels a great investment in your self-care routine.
Check out our blog to learn more about how red light therapy can enhance your wellbeing.
It’s time to take charge of your arthritis with a safe, natural, non-invasive, painless, and pleasurable therapy: red light.