From ibuprofen to prescription medications, we humans do what it takes to alleviate and eliminate physical sensations of pain. But often, the methods we use only mask or dull the pain temporarily, and do nothing to target the actual cause of the pain.
Red light therapy for pain offers another—often preferable—approach that targets the source of pain and boosts the body’s natural healing processes. This non-invasive practice has risen in popularity over the years, thanks to technological advances in at-home devices. Many types of light therapy are touted as pain-relieving, but the most well-studied kind of LED light therapy uses red light and near-infrared light. Here’s an overview of how light therapy for pain works, and how to use at-home light therapy devices for pain relief.
Note: To learn more about the most powerful red light therapy panels you can buy for pain relief or other applications, visit the PlatinumLED store.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy uses light-emitting diode (LED) devices to expose the skin to concentrated wavelengths of red or near-infrared (NIR) light. These are considered part of the visible spectrum of light, although the human eye can’t reliably detect the full infrared spectrum. Red and NIR light wavelengths are known to benefit the human body as particles of light (known as photons) pass through the skin into deeper tissues.
When photons enter individual cells, they stimulate energy-producing organelles known as mitochondria; this, in turn, causes mitochondria to produce more energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Scientists believe that cells energized with ATP are better able to repair and replicate themselves. By extension, this promotes the healing of the skin, bone, muscle, and connective tissue.
Unlike ultraviolet (UV) light, red light will not burn the skin. You may feel a warming sensation, but when used as directed, red light therapy is safe and free from side effects.
How Red Light Therapy Helps Alleviate Pain
Unlike over-the-counter or prescription painkillers, red light therapy—also called photobiomodulation, or low-level light therapy (LLLT)—doesn’t block our perception of pain. Instead, it works at the cellular level to promote optimal cell functioning that results in a healthier, pain-free body.
As a natural and effective treatment, red light therapy has shown great therapeutic potential in clinical trials for treating a variety of conditions. These include (but are not limited to) osteoarthritis and other joint pain, bone breaks, muscle injury, connective tissue disorders, nervous system disorders, and spinal disorders.
But how does red light therapy actually work? Here are a few ways it mitigates pain and heals the body at the cellular level.
Red Light Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is a common source of pain. Although acute inflammation is an immune system response and part of the natural healing process, chronic inflammation can impede the body’s ability to heal. Red light mitigates the body’s inflammatory response by stimulating cellular repair and regeneration.
Red Light Increases Cellular Energy Production
Red light stimulates mitochondria, leading to a frenzy of energy production. Energized cells can perform specialized functions at peak level, and can replicate and perform repairs to the body, such as healing injured or inflamed areas, which leads to a quicker recovery.
Red Light Increases Blood Flow
By stimulating the formation of tiny blood vessels known as capillaries, red light helps increase blood flow to a treatment area. This creates a rush of nutrients and oxygen to cells and aids in the removal of waste that may interfere with the healing process.
Red Light Increases Collagen Production
Red light therapy has been shown to stimulate the production of collagen, an important structural protein present in skin, muscle, and connective tissue. And while this collagen-building effect makes red light therapy a popular anti-aging treatment, it also explains its effectiveness in painful cutaneous (surface) and some subcutaneous (just below the surface) wounds and injuries.
Red Light Therapy vs. Near-Infrared Light Therapy
Red light therapy treatments are often paired with those that use NIR light. Both red and near-infrared wavelengths fall within or near the visible light spectrum; near-infrared light being slightly outside of it, making it invisible to the naked eye but detectable with certain instruments.
Red light ranges from 630 nanometers (nm) to 700nm, and NIR light ranges from 700nm to 1100nm. The slightly shorter wavelengths of red light can penetrate the skin to a depth of about 10 millimeters, while the longer NIR wavelengths penetrate the skin to a depth of about 2 to 7 centimeters.
This difference in penetrating depths is what distinguishes the treatment capabilities of red and NIR wavelengths. For example, red light therapy can stimulate cellular energy in the skin and subcutaneous areas, while NIR light therapy is beneficial for stimulating cells deeper within the body for deeper pain relief.
Within the ranges of red and NIR light are specific wavelengths that are ideal for certain treatments. You can read more about those wavelengths in this article.
Types of Pain Treated by Red and NIR Light Therapy
Whether they’re used separately or together, red light therapy and near-infrared light therapy are incredibly versatile treatments that provide targeted relief for a variety of painful ailments. Here are some examples:
Joint pain is a catch-all term for the various kinds of pain affecting the joints, such as overuse injuries (i.e., injuries caused by repetitive movements) and osteoarthritis, which is described in the next section. With overuse injuries, the cartilage that cushions joints wears down. This can be excruciatingly painful and may lead to overuse of the muscles around those joints. That, in turn, can lead to further injury and more pain.
Red light therapy (as well as NIR light therapy) can help in a few ways. First, it reduces inflammation around irritated joints; second, it promotes blood circulation to the injured area; and third, it increases the production of collagen, an essential component of cartilage.
Separately or in some combination, Red/NIR light therapy can reduce joint pain, as shown in a 2011 study published in the Journal for Laser Surgery, Phototherapy and Photobioactivation. In this study, participants, all of whom suffered from sacroiliac joint pain, underwent 10 sessions of 830nm near-infrared light therapy over five weeks. All showed significant improvement in pain scores, while two-thirds showed increased trunk mobility.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disorder caused by wear and tear on the joints. It affects approximately 32.5 million Americans, from professional athletes to the elderly. Red and NIR light therapy address inflammation, which is the root of this disease. In fact, studies show that consistent treatments help reduce patients’ osteoarthritis pain, and can even improve mobility when combined with exercise. Read more about the ways to use LLLT for pain associated with arthritis.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when pressure on the median nerve in the wrist leads to pain, tingling, and numbness in the hands. Studies have shown that red light therapy can provide short-term pain relief for those suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, likely from the treatment’s ability to target inflamed areas of the body and improve blood circulation.
An autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis attacks joints and causes mild to severe joint pain, inflammation, stiffness, and reduced mobility. Given red light therapy’s anti-inflammatory effects, it has proved to be a promising treatment for this condition.
In a 2005 controlled study by researchers at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, LLLT reduced rheumatoid arthritis pain in patients by 70 percent, compared with the placebo group. Patients also saw a significant decrease in morning stiffness and increases in palm flexibility.
Often associated with running and other high-impact athletic activities, bursitis is a painful condition caused by inflammation of the bursae, which are small fluid-filled sacs between the tendon and bone that lubricate the outer hip joint. Red light therapy speeds up the healing process by alleviating swelling in the treated areas.
Any pain lasting longer than six months is considered chronic, and it often takes a physical toll by tensing the surrounding muscles, limiting mobility, and decreasing energy. Examples of chronic pain include frequent headaches, low backaches, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and nerve damage.
Red light therapy can provide relief for those suffering from chronic pain by decreasing inflammation while increasing the production of blood cells and cellular energy production. Moreover, because red and NIR light therapy can be used safely at home (or with smaller devices, on the go), they provide relief as needed. This is an important factor for those battling chronic pain, which can strike without warning.
Neck and Back Pain
Whether it results from a few nights of bad sleep or the residual effects of a sports injury or accident, neck and back pain can range from aggravating to debilitating. Inflammation is often the cause, making red light therapy an ideal targeted treatment for both neck and back pain—especially lower back pain, which is extremely common.
Studies show that consistent use of red light therapy can increase range of motion while also mitigating pain. A 2006 study published in Pain Research and Management found that near-infrared and infrared therapy reduced chronic low back pain.
How to Treat and Manage Pain with Red Light Therapy
One of the best things about using light therapy for pain is that it’s safe and relatively easy for home use.
A red light therapy session is typically a passive experience; you sit, stand, or lie down in front of the device and allow the photons to penetrate your skin for a window of time—say, 15 to 30 minutes. You can also engage in more of an “active recovery” session, which involves exercising or stretching in front of the device; but people battling chronic or acute pain may prefer to relax and be still.
Red Light Devices for Treating Pain
The type of light therapy device you use should align with the pain you’re trying to treat. For example, the optimal therapeutic red wavelengths of 630nm and 660nm are most effective for treating surface injuries, whereas the 810nm, 830nm, and 850nm wavelengths of NIR light penetrate deeper into internal tissues. So, figure out where your source of pain is located, and then consider which type of light therapy will be best for your personal needs.
When choosing a red light device for your home, be sure to invest in a high-output model that delivers the intensity of light needed for proper absorption into the body’s tissues. Some devices have a lower irradiance, which refers to the amount of energy or photons that penetrate a given area of the body. This makes a device less effective at delivering the healing energy of red and near-infrared light. In general, the higher the irradiance of a red light device, the better the coverage and intensity of treatment.
An LED device such as PlatinumLED’s BIOMAX series delivers extremely high-output red and near-infrared light in a proprietary combination designed for maximum therapeutic effect. Several 15- to 20-minute sessions per week for one to four months can ease your pain and help get your quality of life back
Before self-treating with any red light therapy device, you should consult a medical professional to be sure that you’re not improperly diagnosing a condition.
How Fast Does Red Light Therapy Work?
As incredible and beneficial as red light is, it is not an instant fix for pain. Remember, it works at the cellular level, and cellular change takes time. With regular sessions, you will experience a reduction of chronic discomfort as the body “resets” itself in response to the bioactive properties of red and near-infrared light.
Consistency is key to achieving this result. In fact, many chronic conditions can take several months of consistent irradiation with a red light device before your pain lessens or disappears.
That being said, the likelihood of a chronic condition returning may also be reduced with consistent use of red light therapy. You will likely experience faster and more positive results by combining red and near-infrared light, especially when treating conditions such as arthritis or chronic knee pain.
Case Study: Rachel Callahan
A few years ago, blogger Rachel Callahan wrote about her experience with red light therapy. An avid runner, Calahan was plagued by chronic and continuous back pain due to recurring muscle knots, leading to significant negative impacts on her fitness, sleep, and overall comfort. She saw a physical therapist regularly, and maintained a schedule of ibuprofen and heating pad breaks just to get through the day.
When Callahan’s physical therapist recommended that she try red light therapy, she did some research and then purchased her first Platinum LED BIO600 device. As she writes in her blog, her back improved significantly in days. She stopped taking all medication and never went back to her physical therapist. It wasn’t long before she bought a second red light for a more extensive full-body treatment area.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Callahan’s journey is that she was able to increase her running pace from a 10:30-minute mile to a sub-10-minute mile; she even pulled off a nearly flat nine-minute mile at times.
Callahan describes the feeling she experienced in her legs during runs as “bionic”—suggesting that red light therapy not only healed her chronic pain, but also generated a full-body effect that drastically improved her fitness and performance.
Moving Beyond Pain with Red Light Therapy
Whether chronic or acute, and regardless of its source, pain can have a debilitating effect on your life. Masking pain with NSAIDs or strong, over-the-counter painkillers is a common remedy, but these methods don’t lend themselves to healing pain at its source.For a thorough, non-invasive, and natural pain treatment, consider red light therapy treatments that can be done in the comfort of your home. Of all the at-home devices on the market, PlatinumLED Therapy Lights are the most powerful and feature the widest range of therapeutic wavelengths. Whether it’s a small portable device or a customized array of panels, PlatinumLED lights can provide pain relief at the deepest levels.