Red Light Therapy: Remarkable Relief for Long-Term Back Pain
Red light therapy for back pain is one of the most interesting new treatments available today. It’s a natural, painless, and effective solution.
If you are one of the millions of Americans who suffer from low back pain, you’ve undoubtedly tried all kinds of methods to find relief: ice, rest, physical therapy, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications. If there were only some kind of therapy that could relieve your pain without being risky...
Actually, there is: It’s called red light therapy. In this article, we’ll explore this revolutionary treatment including what it is, how it works, and how it can help relieve your back pain so you can resume your normal activities.
Where Does Low Back Pain Occur?
Low back pain involves five vertebrae in the lumbar region: L1-L5. This part of the spine supports most of the weight of your upper body so it is subject to a lot of stress. As strong as the spine appears to be, this mechanically complex structure is actually quite fragile. The spine is prone to mechanical disruptions whereby some type of force causes it to go out of alignment, and this can lead to muscle strains, slipped or ruptured intervertebral discs, and other injuries that cause pain.
Low back pain affects about 80% of adults at least once in their lives. It’s the leading cause of missed workdays and job-related disability, and it doesn’t play favorites: low back pain affects men and women equally.
Most low back pain is acute (temporary) and is usually caused by an injury. Chronic pain (lasting longer than 12 weeks) afflicts about 20 percent of people who initially develop acute low back pain. Chronic back pain may sometimes be healed using medical or surgical means, but it can persist and cause a significant decline in quality of life.
Low back pain can have many causes, most commonly injury (awkward lifting; strenuous and irregular workouts such as shoveling snow; and traumatic injury from sports, accidents, or falls), age-related disc degeneration, or spinal disorders. Any of these can trigger a pulled muscle, a slipped vertebra, or slipped or ruptured intervertebral disc, causing sharp, stabbing pain.
Some people are predisposed to low back pain, although it can also strike otherwise healthy people. Those who suffer from inflammatory disorders, such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, are more prone to developing it. Other factors include age, fitness level, obesity, genetics, pregnancy, and occupational risks. Stress can also amplify the perception of pain, as well as cause abnormal muscle tightness that worsens a condition.
What Is Pain?
Before we explore how red light can relieve low back pain, it’s important to understand what pain really is.
Most people think about low back pain relief in terms of relieving their symptoms as quickly as possible so they can get back to what they were doing before the pain struck.
Pain, however, serves important self-preservation and immune functions. Pain is a signal that something is wrong in the body. If you heed the signals and allow or assist your body to rest and heal, the pain will likely subside on its own.
The issue becomes complicated, however, if your pain is caused by something other than injury, by an injury that hasn’t healed properly, or if the mechanics of an injury are repeated. While drugs and surgery can dull or relieve the pain to some extent, pain can become chronic if the underlying condition is not identified and addressed. The body will persist in sending pain signals from the affected area to the brain, and the sensation of pain will continue--and likely grow worse.
What’s needed is a safe and effective way to treat the underlying conditions that trigger low back pain.
The Science Behind Red Light Therapy for Pain
Red light therapy, also called low-level laser therapy (LLLT), is a popular therapy to manage pain caused by osteoarthritis, spinal disorders, muscle tears, bone breaks, and connective tissue problems like tendinitis.
How can shining a light on an area relieve pain?
Some immediate relief comes from the gentle, soothing warmth of high-intensity red or near-infrared LED bulbs. The warmth penetrates deeply, which relaxes the muscles. When you’re in pain, your muscles tense up and stay that way, which heightens the perception of pain. Muscle relaxation signals the brain that everything is okay… the danger has passed. This relaxation helps to lower the perception of pain.
You can achieve a soothing warming effect with any light or even a hot bath. But achieving profound and lasting pain relief requires getting down to the cellular level by using a narrow spectrum of light that’s known to have therapeutic properties.
Red light and near-infrared light therapy use LED bulbs to deliver specific wavelengths of light that penetrate the skin for therapeutic benefits at the cellular level. Specifically, the human body is highly responsive to the wavelength spectrum of light within the therapeutic window of 630-850nm.
Pain Relief Using Red Light
Red light treats pain by supporting and amplifying the body’s natural healing mechanisms. This includes:
Red light stimulates mitochondrial functioning in cells. As light photons (bundles of electromagnetic energy) enter the body’s tissues, they become absorbed in the cells’ mitochondria, which are the energy centers within each of the trillions of cells in the body. Inside the cells, photonic energy is converted to a compound known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which provides energy that drives many cellular processes. Energized cells have abundant energy to perform their essential functions, including cellular repair and replication. Healthy cells speed up healing of injured or infected areas--and faster healing means less time suffering from pain.
Cellular health leads to the second primary function of LLLT: reducing inflammation, which is the immune system’s response to injury or infection. Without inflammation, wounds would not heal, and you would have succumbed long ago to the first pathogen that entered your body. Red light reduces both acute and chronic inflammation by stimulating cellular repair, which in turn soothes the inflammatory immune response and allows the body to heal faster.
Acute inflammation occurs when you sprain your ankle, twist your back, get dirt in your eye, or develop a sore throat. This short-term emergency response manifests as redness, swelling, heat, and pain: signs that your body is in full protect-and-repair mode. As the injury or infection heals, acute inflammation gradually subsides, and the pain subsides along with it.
Yet even though inflammation is part of healing, certain factors can amplify the inflammatory response to the point where the body starts attacking itself. For instance, when inflammatory immune system proteins known as cytokines become destructive to normal, healthy cells, the result is tissue damage and even stronger inflammatory responses—a vicious cycle.
Stem Cell Activation
Stem cells are vital to the body’s ability to heal. Seemingly magical in their functions, stem cells are non-specialized cells that are present throughout the body in an inactive state until they are needed. Then they travel through the bloodstream to the affected area and develop into any cell that’s needed. Low-level laser therapy activates these amazing stem cells, and in the process, effectively supports the healing process.
Increased Collagen Production
Collagen is the main component of the skin—but that’s not all. This fibrous protein is also present in all muscle and connective tissue throughout the body. If muscle or connective tissue is damaged, it needs collagen to form a latticework of cells that stitch the separated tissues together. Red light laser therapy stimulates collagen production, thereby assisting in healing.
Increased Blood Flow
Poor blood circulation can aggravate acute and chronic pain conditions. Red light helps relieve pain by stimulating the formation of capillaries and increasing blood flow in the treated area. In turn, increased blood flow brings nutrients and oxygen to cells, and removes waste materials.
How Will Red Light Therapy Help My Low Back Pain?
If you don’t require surgery for your back, red light therapy can help relieve your pain by stimulating various physiological mechanisms that promote healing.
Red light assists in muscle and connective tissue repair by increasing and regulating collagen production. Collagen is a primary component of connective tissue, including intervertebral discs, which cushion the vertebrae and allow the spine to bend and flex. After an injury, collagen production must be regulated (normalized) so healthy tissue can form rather than scar tissue.
The formation of scar tissue (known as fibrosis) is one risk of low back muscle injuries—and when scar tissue forms in muscles, it can permanently alter their ability to function normally. This can lead to chronic pain, reduced mobility, and muscle weakness.
Laser light therapy reduces the acute inflammatory response and supports muscle recovery on a cellular level by activating myosatellite cells. These are stem cells that are contained within muscle tissue and are involved in muscle growth and repair. Myosatellite cells activate in response to muscle strain caused by injury or strenuous exercise. Normally inactive, these precursors to healthy muscle cells mobilize at the site of an injury and transform into fully functional muscle cells to quickly rebuild muscle.
The only drawback to red light (630-660nm) is its limited penetration into the body’s tissues. With a penetration range of 8 to 10mm (1/3”) red light can’t reach muscles within the torso; only those near the skin’s surface.
What’s the Best Approach?
While red light is extremely effective at treating surface injuries, you need the extra boost of near-infrared light (NIR) to penetrate more deeply into muscle, connective tissue, and even bone to stimulate low back healing. Longer, 810nm NIR wavelength improves new tissue formation in wound healing. The 830nm wavelength improves bone repair by stimulating new bone growth. And because it supports muscle recovery, the 830nm wavelength also allows athletes to return to play faster after being injured.
The combination of red and NIR light is within the 'therapeutic window' —the optimal choice for treating acute and chronic low back pain.
How Do I Treat Low Back Pain with Red Light?
Red light therapy may be administered by a doctor or physical therapist, which means several weekly visits until the pain subsides. You can also treat low back pain at home with quality LED panels that deliver the light output needed for therapeutic effect. But since the muscles that support the spine are deep within the body, you will need high doses of red and NIR light to reach deep muscle and connective tissue. Inexpensive masks and wands will not deliver the light output needed to effectively treat low back pain.
The first step is to purchase a high-quality device for red light therapy--ideally, one that features a combination of red and NIR light. Once you get the light, use it for 10 to 20 minutes, three to five times per week as necessary to accelerate recovery.
When Will I See Results?
Depending on the severity of your back pain and/or injury, you may experience pain relief within days, or possibly a few weeks. Remember, the key to success is consistency.
Once the pain has subsided, you may be eager to resume normal activities--but please only do so based on the advice of your doctor to avoid being re-injured.
Once you resume normal activities, you may benefit from preconditioning your lower back muscles with a three- to five-minute session prior to an activity, which can help prevent injury. Immediately after exercise, treat your muscles with red light (irradiate) for 10 to 20 minutes to accelerate recovery. This maintenance program, combined with a core strengthening fitness program, can help prevent the recurrence of low back pain due to movement issues.
Are There Other Types of Light Therapy for Low Back Pain?
Infrared light therapy for back pain may be something to consider, but with caution. Infrared light (IR, at 850-1200nm) is the only other type of light with therapeutic value for low back pain—but it comes with a potentially serious side effect.
Infrared radiation is absorbed in the form of heat; to put this in perspective, infrared light from the sun accounts for 49% of the heating of the earth. While this type of heat can be soothing, like the heat in infrared saunas, too much infrared light exposure can result in overheating and actually burning the cells. For this reason, IR light therapy should only be administered by a doctor under close supervision.
Let the Soothing Effects of Red Light Ease Your Low Back Pain
With red light therapy for low back pain, you can experience the immediate soothing effect of deep penetrating heat, as well as cell-level stimulation of the body’s natural healing processes for pain relief. Whether you’re an athlete, a working professional, a stay-at-home parent, a business owner, or a world traveler, you can enjoy the many healthful benefits of red and NIR light.
You will get the best results in treating low back pain by using a combination of red light and NIR light.
Learn more here about high-quality LED light therapy for back pain, and devices that combine red and NIR light to produce the highest amount of irradiance for maximum therapeutic effect.