Proper blood flow is essential for good health. Research shows that red light therapy improves circulation.
If you have a blood clot due to injury or an underlying condition, you may be wondering if red light therapy can be used to break up the clot and restore normal blood flow.
In this article, we’ll show how red light therapy helps blood flow normally and why it may prevent certain conditions that cause clotting and associated health risks.
If you’re mostly interested in how red light therapy treats blood clots, feel free to skip down to that section below.
What are Blood Clots?
A thrombus, or blood clot, is a gel-like semi-solid mass of coagulated blood. Clots form as an emergency response to stop bleeding after an injury to a blood vessel.
Clotting is an essential part of healing, but it's temporary, as coagulated blood masses will typically dissolve on their own as the injury heals.
Clots that affect veins near the surface of the skin are called superficial thrombophlebitis. These are typically harmless.
What’s surprising is that even relatively minor injuries such as sprained ankles or muscle tears can cause clotting. You may not see outward evidence such as a bruise, but vessels deeper in the ankle could be damaged when you sprain an ankle, and clotting can occur.
The same happens when there's blunt trauma to the muscles.
Outwardly, you may not see bruising (though the muscle will be tender) but there could be significant circulatory damage deep in the muscle and beneath it. Any time you've had a hard fall or sharp impact injury, keep a close eye on things. Always seek medical treatment if you're concerned about clotting.
The real danger is clotting that doesn't dissolve.
Clotting can occur very deep in the leg, and sometimes without any injury. Clotting deeper in the body may dissolve very slowly. If clots break loose, they can be a significant health hazard, especially if they travel to the lungs or the brain.
Clotting can happen anywhere in all three kinds of blood vessels although it is most common in veins.
- Veins, which carry blood back to the heart
- Arteries, which carry blood away from the heart
- Capillaries, which connect the arteries and veins
There are two types of problems caused by venous (vein) clots:
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): this is a blockage caused by clotting formed in the deep veins of the legs or less commonly in the arms, pelvis, or other large veins.
- Pulmonary embolism (PE): this is a mass that has broken loose and is traveling to another part of the body. If a DVT travels to the lungs, it can cause a pulmonary embolism.
Arterial clotting is less common because if an embolism blocks oxygen from reaching the heart or the brain, the outcome is a heart attack or a stroke.
Symptoms of Blood Clots
In small injury-related clotting near the skin’s surface, you probably won’t experience any symptoms other than inflammation at the site of the injury. This is a necessary part of the body’s healing process, and clotting usually dissolves on its own as the injury heals.
Blood vessel damage from blunt trauma to the leg (such as damage from a hard fall) can be a more significant health hazard since it increases the chance of clotting, and these coagulated masses can break loose and make their way to the heart or lungs.
Clotting, whether or not it is related to injuries should be taken very seriously as it can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of dangerous clotting usually come on quickly and don’t resolve quickly.
Symptoms of Deep Vein Thrombosis
- Sudden or dramatic swelling. Legs may swell toward the end of the day. Watch out for unusual swelling or swelling that lingers and doesn’t improve with leg elevation.
- Throbbing or cramping leg pain that lasts longer than a typical “charley horse” cramp which lasts only a few minutes.
- Changes in varicose veins including veins that feel hard to the touch; veins that bulge and don’t flatten when you raise your leg or lie down; tenderness and redness around the varicose vein.
- Purplish discoloration of the skin on the arm or leg.
Symptoms of a Pulmonary Embolism
- Shortness of breath, especially if it lingers or doesn’t appear linked to exertion. Pulmonary Embolism (PE-related) shortness of breath will linger for hours or days after exertion rather than minutes.
- Shooting or stabbing chest pain that lasts, especially if it worsens when you take a deep breath or cough
- Chest pressure or heaviness that lasts
- Coughing up blood
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Lightheadedness or fainting, which signal very low blood pressure
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek urgent medical care since the consequences can be life-threatening.
Ways to Prevent Blood Clots
Preventative measures are best to ensure clotting that isn't related to wound healing doesn’t form in the first place. These include:
- Avoid sitting for long periods. If you have a desk job, get up frequently and move around, and avoid sitting with your legs crossed. If you are on a transatlantic or other long flight, get up frequently and/or wear compression stockings to help your blood move
- Exercise regularly
- Lose excess weight
- Eat a diet high in anti-oxidants to support cellular health
- Work your lower leg muscles help push blood through the body (try a standing desk where you can do calf raises while working)
- Stop smoking
- Stay consistently hydrated as dehydration promotes increased blood viscosity and narrowing of blood vessels.
- Use red light therapy to address the underlying causes of clotting, and to support the circulatory system in maintaining good blood flow (we'll go in-depth into this in a later section)
Why Circulation is Important
Why is it so important to restore circulation?
Proper blood circulation is one of the most important bodily functions, and not just for heart health. Diabetes is another chronic disease that has been linked to poor circulation.
Good blood flow ensures every part of your body is getting the support it needs.
Good Blood Flow Maintains Healthy Levels
Proper blood flow maintains healthy oxygen and nutrient levels in the cells, for optimal cell function. Having good circulation also helps stabilize body temperature and maintain our pH balance. By extension, it helps maintain organ and system function, and homeostasis or balance in the body.
Oxygen gives the cells the ability to break down raw materials (food) to produce the energy cells needed to survive and perform their specialized functions.
Good Blood Flow Removes Waste
Waste is a natural byproduct of every biological process. Good circulation helps remove waste that is a by-product of normal organ functions, from many systems in the body. Additionally, good blood circulation is responsible for transporting nutrients and waste products to and from cells.
Good Blood Flow Ensures a Strong Immune Response
Good blood flow ensures that white blood cells are able to quickly mobilize to the site of an injury or infection to ward off any pathogens.
Red blood cells sent to the affected area stimulate the formation of new blood vessels which will help send even more oxygen and nutrients to the damaged cells.
The body’s acute inflammatory response also stimulates the dilation of blood vessels to send more oxygen, nutrients, and immune substances to the affected area. Poor circulation is a leading cause of slow-healing chronic wounds.
What Happens When There’s a Blockage?
Vein blockages are common if you have varicose veins and/or clotting.
The good news is that your body is very good at utilizing other blood vessels when one is blocked, so the presence of clotting is not as worrisome as a mass that breaks loose and travels to another part of the body.
Often, your body will accommodate blockages in small vessels by diverting blood flow.
However, it’s seldom a good idea to take chances.
Don't assume that your body will divert blood flow to another vessel. It may not be possible, especially in the case of large veins or arteries.
If you show symptoms of abnormal clotting, seek medical treatment immediately. A medical professional will perform tests including:
- D-dimer blood tests, which highlight a specific protein produced by the clotting process.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, which is used to detect clotting in the abdomen.
- Ultrasounds, which uses sound waves to generate images of how the blood is moving through the veins.
- Venography, which involves injecting a dye into the vein or artery and then using an X-ray to detect clotting deep in the veins. This test is usually done only if blood tests or ultrasounds don’t show clotting but the symptoms persist.
Treatment may include:
- Anticoagulants or blood thinners prevent an increase in clotting and reduce the risk of more clotting. There are often very serious side effects associated with anticoagulants, which limits their uses.
- Thrombolytics or “clot-busting” drugs are sometimes given intravenously directly into the masses to dissolve them. These are typically only used to treat severe clotting and often have serious side effects.
- Filters, such as a shuttlecock-shaped device, are sometimes inserted directly into the vein in the vena cava (the large abdominal vein) to trap clotting that has formed in the legs from traveling to the lungs. This invasive procedure is often used for patients after auto accidents or if they are bedridden for prolonged periods.
- Compression stockings prevent blood from pooling in the legs, reduce swelling and encourage circulation. Compression stockings are unlikely to clear up existing blood clots but are used as a preventive measure.
Of course, prevention is much better than treatment, especially since the treatment for clotting may come with serious side effects.
Causes of Poor Circulation
Poor circulation is not a specific medical condition. It is rather a side effect of various medical conditions. Treating these underlying conditions can help restore healthy blood flow.
There are a surprising number of causes of poor circulation including:
- Antiphospholipid syndrome, an uncommon and currently incurable autoimmune condition.
- Any clotting, whether it is near the surface or deep in the veins of the leg, abdomen, or elsewhere in the body.
- Arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
- Atherosclerosis, a specific type of arteriosclerosis that can occur in any area of the body. It results from a buildup of fats and other substances in the arteries (“plaque”) which causes arteries to narrow and hinder blood flow. Plaque can also burst and cause clotting.
- Chronic inflammation
- Complications from COVID-19 and other viruses
- Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
- Diabetes: Diabetes can cause a narrowing and hardening of veins and arteries in the feet and legs.
- Factor V Leiden, a mutation that increases the chance of abnormal clotting
- Genetics, heart arrhythmia, heart disease
- Lupus and other autoimmune diseases
- Medications, including hormone replacement therapy and oral contraceptives
- Obesity (excess weight along with plaque buildup can put pressure on the circulatory system and encourage clotting)
- Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD), or narrowed arteries that restrict blood flow to the arms or legs (usually associated with atherosclerosis)
- Polycythemia vera, a type of blood cancer; this disease causes the bone marrow to produce an excess of red blood cells which thicken the blood and slow circulation
- Pregnancy, prolonged bed rest, prolonged sitting, pulmonary embolism (clotting in an artery in the lung), smoking, stroke, surgery, varicose veins, dehydration
Symptoms of Poor Circulation
If there’s a problem with the circulatory system, the body will ensure that blood is getting to the vital organs and the brain. This is why your extremities are the first place you may notice symptoms of poor circulation.
Proper blood circulation is one of the most important functions in the body and is key for maintaining optimal health. Consistent photobiomodulation treatments not only have the power to promote self-healing mechanisms of the circulatory system but also the underlying conditions associated with compromised blood circulation.
Functional Medicine Doctor of Physical TherapyDr. Alayna Newton, PT, DPT, FAFS
What to Look For: Signs of a Weak Circulatory System
Hopefully, now you are more knowledgeable about monitoring your body for symptoms of abnormal clotting. Also, be on the lookout for these telltale symptoms that signal a problem with your cardiovascular system as a whole:
- Bulging veins
- Cold fingers and toes (the cold sensation may extend to the feet and hands)
- Chest pain, either a dull ache or sharp stabbing pains (often mistaken for a heart attack)
- Edema, or swelling, especially in the ankles
- Muscle cramps, pain, or weakness when you’re at rest or doing a mild form of exercise such as walking
- Pale or bluish skin color
- “Pins and needles” prickling sensations
Treating the symptoms is a start. What’s most important is addressing the underlying causes of poor circulation.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent poor circulation. To restore proper circulation, always talk to your doctor first before starting an exercise program and make positive lifestyle modifications. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe blood thinners or other medication as a treatment for clotting and other circulatory complications.
If you want to ensure healthy circulation and prevent clotting, you could incorporate red light therapy into your daily self-care routine.
How Red Light Therapy Treats Poor Circulation
Red and near-infrared light therapy treatments can support enhanced circulation, especially when combined with healthy lifestyle changes.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are precisely calibrated to specific beneficial wavelengths of red and/or near-infrared (NIR) light.
These wavelengths absorb into the body where they trigger a chain reaction of beneficial physiological events which will be described in the next section.
Red Light Therapy Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is a normal and important part of the body’s healing process. However, it also has a darker side. When it lasts beyond the necessary healing period – or is triggered by something other than injury or illness – a chronic inflammatory response can lead to diseases, including circulatory diseases.
You can see the effects of inflammation in the acute (short-term) phase when an injured area becomes red. This redness is caused by increased blood flow to the affected area. One of the effects of an acute inflammatory response is vasodilation, or dilated blood vessels. This facilitates bringing white blood cells and other immune substances to the site of the injury.
Not only do blood vessels dilate during an inflammatory phase. They also develop temporary leaks that allow immune cells to go wherever they are needed. It’s this leaking of fluid that causes swelling.
Normally, this acute phase of redness and swelling only lasts for a few days.
When inflammation becomes chronic, it interferes with the circulatory system. It is a leading cause and can be a contributing factor to problems such as atherosclerosis, strokes, and heart attacks. Because atherosclerosis and other circulatory diseases can cause clotting, it’s important to address this chronic underlying condition in order to maintain the health of your cardiovascular system.
One of the hallmark benefits of red light therapy is that it temporarily increases acute inflammation during the healing phase, which accelerates the process. Then, when the inflammatory response is no longer needed, red light tones down the inflammatory response to give cells a chance to regroup and restore normal function.
For patients undergoing heart surgery and are on extracorporeal circulation devices (machines that keep the blood flowing), the anti-inflammatory effects of red light therapy are very important.
A strong inflammatory response and oxidative stress are inherent to extracorporeal circulation.
Red light has been shown to protect blood cells against oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can damage the cells and cause inflammation which affects the body’s ability to heal.
Among other influential scholars, Dr. Michael Hamblin shared his expertise on the anti-inflammatory properties of red light therapy in a 2017 paper.
Does Red Light Therapy Increase Nitric Oxide?
No, red light therapy does not increase laughing gas (nitrous oxide) in the body. But it does stimulate a release of nitric oxide, which is a natural vasodilator. Nitric oxide quickly dilates veins, arteries, and capillaries in the red light treatment area, thus stimulating blood flow.
Red light therapy stabilizes platelets to prevent excessive bleeding or coagulation.
In patients undergoing serious surgeries, preventing clotting is essential for their safety. Hooking a patient up to various machines that pump blood (“extracorporeal circulation”) can harm the platelets, which are the components of blood cells that control clotting.
In a study on animals, NIR light was shown to stabilize platelet function and prevent platelet destruction. The study authors suggest that stabilizing platelets may prevent blood clotting as well as excessive bleeding.
Red Light Therapy Increases Cellular Energy
The authors of the study linked above also stated that “[Red light] treatment enhances mitochondrial function and maintains ATP production.” They go on to suggest that this may be one of the mechanisms by which red light therapy helps stabilize platelets.
Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, is the primary fuel of your cells. This energy is required for the cells to perform functions which you can observe on a macro level as muscle contraction.
On a micro level, the mitochondria in each cell has to be able to produce enough energy to fulfill its functions, to repair itself, and to replicate successfully.
Healing really begins at the level of an individual cell. When a cell is struggling and is unable to perform its functions, it directly affects the performance of its neighbors and of other cells within the system.
Boosting the ability of an individual cell can help the system function better. Of course, one tiny cell among trillions can't have a huge effect, but typically the forces that cause one cell to struggle also affect other cells within the system.
Several factors including chronic inflammation and oxidative stress can disrupt the ability of the mitochondria to produce enough ATP. This can lead to slow healing as well as autoimmune disorders and various diseases that prevent healthy blood flow.
Red light therapy stimulates the mitochondria to produce more ATP. This has been confirmed in dozens of studies. Energized cells are high-functioning cells. This benefit alone can spark healing and the restoration of homeostasis, or "business as usual" for your body's systems.
Along with its anti-inflammatory effects, boosting cellular energy production and circulation are the primary ways by which red light therapy can be used to prevent abnormal clotting. This is because it treats the underlying causes of abnormal clotting.
Can Red Light Break Up Blood Clots?
The biggest question is whether red light has the ability to break up coagulated masses of blood. It does not have that ability.
However, by increasing blood vessel diameter, red light therapy promotes blood flow by reducing inflammation and promoting cellular metabolism. This natural treatment can speed up healing.
When a wound has healed, a protein called plasmin (which is present in the clot) is activated by a substance called plasminogen, which is involved in both the creation and the destruction of clots. Once plasmin is activated, the clotted chunk of blood dissolves.
How can red light therapy help? Let's look at a substance involved in clotting: plasminogen.
Plasminogen is released by the endothelial cells which make up the walls of veins, arteries, and capillaries. Red light therapy has been shown to stimulate growth of endothelial cells, reduce inflammation as well as increase blood flow, and cellular energy. Supporting the endothelial cells in this way could lead to better regulation of the clotting process, both in the formative stages and in the dissolution stages.
In the case of serious clotting such as DVT or PE, treatment usually involves a combination of vasodilators, anticoagulants, and surgical procedures to clear the obstruction and prevent damage to the lungs, heart, or brain. Red light therapy can be used preventatively.
Laser Treatments for Blood Clots
Some researchers have begun using lasers to break up clots, but this is different from low level laser therapy used to promote cellular health.
The laser therapy used to break up clotting involves high-intensity lasers that cause heat damage to the tissues. This makes high powered lasers great at dissolving clotted areas, but they must be used with extreme care to avoid damaging blood vessels and surrounding tissue.
(H3) Low Level Light Therapy (LLLT) vs. LED Light Therapy
By contrast, low level light therapy (LLLT) stimulates biological processes in the body. It is similar to LED light therapy in that it uses red and/or near infrared light, but the light is delivered by a laser therapy device rather than a light emitting diode device.
Laser therapy is performed in a clinical setting; even though low-level or "cold" lasers are used, there's still the possibility of burns. LED treatments don't cause heat damage to the tissues.
Most early research into red and NIR light used low level light therapy (LLLT). Today, many studies use light-emitting diode (LED) devices.
The only real difference between these two delivery methods is that laser therapy intensely concentrates the light which may help the light photons absorb deeper into the body. However, because of the concentrated nature of the light, the treatment area is very small.
LED devices feature slightly more diffused light that spreads over a larger area, which increases the treatment area without sacrificing much absorption depth. Advances in LED technology mean that today, you can enjoy excellent results using high quality medical grade LED light therapy devices.
To sum up, red light therapy can help prevent abnormal clotting by reducing systemic inflammation. It can also help speed up healing from injuries that involve clotting wherever veins or arteries are damaged by stimulating cellular energy production. It also does this by expanding the diameter of veins, arteries, and capillaries to promote healthy oxygen levels and nutrient levels.
However, it should be noted that urgent medical treatment is the only way to treat a clotting event that is life-threatening!
Red Light Therapy Solutions for Cardiovascular Health
To prevent dangerous clotting, we recommend a combination of a healthy lifestyle and regular red light therapy treatment along with any treatment prescribed by your doctor.
Treating and preventing the underlying cause of abnormal clotting —inflammation — can be a lifelong health challenge. Regular red light therapy treatments can help, but one must use the right device for optimal results.
Use a High-Powered LED Light Therapy Device
Use a FDA-cleared, medical grade LED light therapy device with enough light energy output to ensure that the maximum number of light photons absorb into the veins and other tissues.
Use a Combination of Red and Near Infrared Light
Red light therapy is used for skin-deep concerns and can help stimulate blood flow to the capillaries in the skin.
Near infrared wavelengths penetrate deeper into the body, and thus it is used to treat veins and other blood vessels that surface-level wavelengths are not able to reach.
Many quality red light therapy panels feature two wavelengths: 660 nm red and 850 nm near infrared. However, the BIOMAX series from PlatinumLED Therapy Lights delivers five different red/NIR wavelengths. This amplifies the health benefits of each wavelength and ensures thorough penetration into your circulatory system.
BIOMAX: the Best Anti-Clotting Light Therapy Product on the Market
The BIOMAX series panels from PlatinumLED Therapy Lights are hands down the best red light therapy devices on the market. They feature superior light energy output in their power class, a five-wavelength array of two red and three near infrared wavelengths, and a modular design that lets you increase both the power and coverage by adding panels.
What about side effects? As powerful as they are, LED devices do not generate tissue-damaging heat. There are no known side effects to red light therapy. LED devices are safe to use and unlike low level laser therapy (LLLT) you can self-administer the treatment at home.
Since inflammation and by extension mitochondrial dysfunction are at the root of most diseases and otherwise inexplicable clotting, the BIOMAX series are modular which means you can increase coverage and power by adding more panels.
In addition to the circulatory system, you can treat dozens of conditions with a short 3-20 minute daily red light therapy session.
Support Your Circulatory System Health with Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy is a natural and non-invasive treatment. It can support your body’s amazing self-healing mechanisms to help prevent abnormal clotting, including reducing chronic inflammation. It can also support your body in restoring healthy circulation.
To recap, red light therapy has four key benefits that support healing and overall health:
- reducing inflammation
- boosting cellular energy production
- increasing circulation
- increasing collagen and elastin synthesis
Many doctors are now prescribing red light therapy as a supplementary treatment for inflammatory disorders, autoimmune disorders, and chronic diseases, all of which can contribute to abnormal clotting.
Take a look at our home red light therapy panels, to see which one may be best for you!