Lymphedema is a condition that involves chronic swelling in one or both arms or legs. It results from a blockage in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. When lymph nodes can’t drain properly, fluid builds up in tissues, leading to uncomfortable and painful swelling, as well as other complications.
There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is an inherited illness that is extremely rare. Secondary lymphedema, which is far more common, is caused by another disease or condition, such as injury to lymph nodes, removal of lymph nodes during cancer surgery, radiation treatment for cancer, or cancer itself.
In this article, we’ll explore how red light therapy for lymphedema can reduce the pain and swelling, restore range of motion (mobility), and even help restore healthy lymphatic system functioning.
Standard Lymphedema Treatments
Lymphedema swelling can range from mild and hardly noticeable to extreme. Severe swelling can restrict range of motion, lead to recurring infections, and even a hardening or thickening of the skin.
Lymphedema is a physically and psychologically debilitating condition with no known cure. The standard treatment is complete decongestive therapy (CDT), which includes manual lymphatic drainage, multilayer bandaging, compression bandages, limb elevation, and physical therapy. It can also include oral medications and massage. Healthcare practitioners typically recommend that frequent exercise be part of treatment to naturally keep fluids moving in the body.
These methods can be effective for people who suffer from lymphedema. Yet none of them treats the blockage or restores normal lymphatic flow—meaning the condition could remain chronic for years, if not a lifetime, and treatment must continue indefinitely.
How Red Light Therapy Can Help Lymphedema Sufferers
Red light therapy, however, can help the body's natural mechanisms fight the underlying causes of lymphedema. Also called low-level light therapy (LLLT) and photobiomodulation, red light therapy is safe, gentle, and non-invasive. Red light therapy for lymph nodes stimulates its natural functioning including proper drainage and reduces swelling.
Before we talk about how this powerful natural remedy can help fight lymphedema, let’s briefly go over what red light therapy is, and how it works.
The Basics of Red Light Therapy
Humans have always needed sunlight to thrive. Ancient healers knew this and often prescribed fresh air and sunshine to their patients. Even today, bright light therapy that mimics sunlight is used to treat depression and other conditions.
Although sunlight appears to the human eye as warm white light, it actually contains many colored wavelengths of light. Some of these are visible to the human eye, while others are not. We can see red light, for example, but not infrared.
The Most Beneficial Wavelengths
Depending on their length (measured in nanometers, or nm), each wavelength has different absorption capabilities into the body. Blue wavelengths, for example, are shorter and more energetic, whereas red wavelengths are longer and slower.
What’s important is that each wavelength has different effects on the body. Blue light kills bacteria on the skin, so it is an effective acne treatment. Green light is a popular treatment for migraines, and amber light can soothe skin redness.
Scientists have concluded that the most beneficial wavelengths for human health are red and near-infrared (NIR) light. Red light ranges from 630nm to 660nm, and NIR light ranges from 810nm to 850nm.
When applied to bare skin via devices with powerful LED bulbs, red wavelengths absorb into the upper layers of the skin while the longer NIR wavelengths absorb deeper into the underlying tissues, including connective tissue and even bone.
If you are interested to learn more about red light wavelength in details, check out this blog.
How Red Light Affects the Body
The most notable effect of red light therapy is that it stimulates energy production within individual cells that are exposed to the light. Here's how it works:
When red light shines on bare skin, it is absorbed by mitochondria, which are the “energy factories” inside most cells of the body. When mitochondria soak up light photons, this stimulates the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary cellular fuel.
This boost of additional energy enables cells to regenerate and build new proteins, including collagen and elastin. Energized cells directly affect the proper functioning of the body, since all bodily systems are interrelated and interdependent. Thus, the healthier and more energized cells are, the greater the improvement in overall health.
Red light therapy is a long-term approach that can yield great outcomes through consistent use. If you aren’t getting results from conventional lymphedema treatments, or want to boost the results you are seeing, red light could be an effective complementary treatment.
Ways that Red Light Helps Relieve Lymphedema
As mentioned, conventional treatments address the symptoms, but not the blockage of lymphatic flow. LLLT (using both red and/or NIR waves) can support the reduction of swelling by stimulating cellular activity and restoring normal lymphatic activity.
LLLT can be used for both primary and secondary lymphedema. Secondary lymphedema, however, is more challenging because it may not become noticeable until months or years after cancer treatment.
If you have symptoms like persistent swelling in your arm or leg, aches, recurring infections, restricted range of motion, feelings of heaviness or tightness, and hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis), this could signal secondary lymphedema.
Increased Cellular Energy
As mentioned earlier, red light therapy stimulates increased energy production in cells. Imagine how you feel when you’re full of energy: you feel like you can take on the world! It’s the same with your cells. Energized cells can use their resources for their functions, not just self-preservation. They do their jobs, they repair themselves, they replicate more successfully… and as a result, the body can get to work repairing and rebuilding larger systems such as the lymphatic system.
Lymphangiogenesis is a process of forming new lymphatic vessels from existing vessels, which is similar to blood vessel development. More lymphatic vessels mean greater opportunities for lymph fluid to drain instead of collecting in the body’s tissues.
LLLT increased lymphangiogenesis and decreased inflammation in an animal study of mouse tail lymphedema. The mice were divided into LLLT, sham, and surgical control groups. After 12 days of receiving daily LLLT treatment after surgery, the LLLT treatment group had significantly reduced tail thickness (reduced lymphedema), reduced inflammation, and more lymphatic vessel growth. This study suggests that post-surgical LLLT holds great promise for human use.
Increased Circulation and Reduced Inflammation
The lymphatic system (along with the cardiovascular system) is part of the circulatory system, which is responsible for moving fluid around in the body. These two systems work together to deliver nutrients and remove waste from the body.
In short, cardiovascular capillaries bring blood to the area; and lymphatic capillaries remove fluid from the area.
Red light stimulates the proliferation of endothelial cells in the cardiovascular system. These form part of the capillaries that deliver blood to the tissues. When there are more capillaries, more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to cells, which helps in the healing process and helps prevent infection. The blood delivers white blood cells to any area of the body where pathogens or toxins are present.
Lymphatic endothelial cells are a specialized subset of endothelial cells present in tissue and the lymph nodes. These are part of the structure of lymphatic capillaries, which transport waste through the lymphatic system and away from the affected area.
Although there are currently no studies specifically on the effect of red light therapy on lymphatic endothelial cells, there are numerous studies showing that it can significantly reduce inflammation—and inflammation causes lymphatic capillaries to leak more than they should. Instead of transporting lymphatic fluid (known as lymph) to the lymph nodes where it is filtered before reabsorbing into the bloodstream, lymph leaks out and collects in the body's tissues.
The next section explains how this process works.
Increased Lymph Node Pumping
The lymphatic system does not have a pump like the heart, which is the pump for the cardiovascular system. Lymph needs to make its way to the lymph nodes in the neck, where it will be filtered and cleaned before re-entering the bloodstream. Lymph is pushed through movement; specifically, the pressure exerted by the muscles and joints on lymph vessels.
When movement is impaired due to swelling—and the lymph vessels are already damaged due to surgery or radiation—lymph isn't pushed toward the lymph nodes for filtering. Instead, it collects in the spaces between muscles and joints.
In one animal study, it was shown that red light therapy for the lymphatic system increases the process of regeneration during wound healing. Researchers compared the progress of a surgical incision in two groups of mice, and found significantly faster regeneration of the veins and lymph vessel, and reduced edema in the treated mice.
LLLT is believed to stimulate lymphatic motricity (movement), lymphangiogenesis, and macrophage activity, and soften fibrotic tissues, improving contractility in the tissues that assist with lymph transport through the lymphatic vessels. These mechanisms increase the movement of pooled fluid from the extracellular spaces into the lymphatic system for transport.
Increased Collagen Production and Reduced Scar Tissue
After the skin has been cut in surgery, the body’s emergency response is to close the wound as quickly as possible, even if it is sutured. The body mobilizes the production of collagen, which is the primary protein responsible for the structure of the skin. In its haste to close the wound, the normal organization of collagen becomes less of a priority than getting the wound closed so infection can’t set in.
Collagen then clumps together to form thickened and less elastic skin: a scar. Surgical scars can hinder movement and cause damage to lymphatic vessels, which can contribute to poor lymphatic pumping.
Reducing scars can help increase range of motion and encourage pain-free movement, which will, in turn, stimulate the flow of lymph.
LLLT supports normal organization of collagen to form normal skin. Normal healthy skin is made up of an organized latticework of collagen proteins that hold up the epidermal layer. Red light improves energy production in fibroblasts, which are the cells responsible for producing collagen. Over time, as cells within the incision scar naturally die off, they will be replaced with normal skin. Eventually, the scar can soften to the point it no longer impedes movement.
Lymphedema can be psychologically devastating, especially if it is chronic. Reducing depression is an important part of the healing process. Many women who have undergone breast cancer treatment feel anxiety and depression related to lymphedema, as well as fatigue, and a fear of cancer recurring. Chronic stress is physically harmful and should be mitigated to facilitate healing.
A 2019 study examined the effectiveness of LLLT treatment among 22 breast cancer patients who suffered from lymphedema. Half of the women received LLLT along with complete decongestive therapy; the control group received CDT and placebo therapy. Twelve months later, those in the LLLT group reported less emotional distress and improved self-perception compared with the control group.
Increased Interstitial Flow
The human body is about 60 percent water. Most of this is within cells, but about 30 percent is outside cells and is known as interstitial fluid.
The interstitium is a network of fluid-filled spaces between cells. It is found throughout the body mostly in connective tissue, but also under the skin, between the organs, and around muscles. This “empty” space in the body, which was only discovered in 2015, is not empty; rather, it is filled with fluid, including lymph. This network is supported by a lattice of collagen.
Near-infrared light can penetrate deeper into the body because of its longer wavelengths. One 2019 study found that treatment with NIR light stimulates interstitial flow and supports healthy collagen formation of an open latticework that ensures the free movement of fluid throughout the body.
LLLT increases lymph flow, which prevents lymph from collecting in the body’s tissues. Along with reduced inflammation and increased circulation, improved lymph flow helps the body flush this excess liquid and reduces the circumference and volume of the affected limb(s).
Reduced swelling leads to pressure relief. As the affected area releases fluid, the skin softens, which helps to reduce pain and increase range of motion.
You may experience superior and accelerated results when LLLT is used as a complementary therapy to CDT. This approach targets both immediate relief from the edema, as well as promotes normal lymph vessel functioning.
Long-term, maintenance therapy such as regular exercise combined with LLLT, can keep your lymphatic system functioning normally.
Using LED Light at Home for Lymphedema
Many of the studies on lymphedema focus on lasers as the delivery method for therapeutic red/NIR wavelengths. The upside of lasers is that they’re effective at delivering red light; the downside is that the few are available for consumer use, and even low-level lasers are not without risk.
A much safer and equally effective solution is LED lights that deliver red and NIR waves; and unlike lasers, you can’t burn your body’s tissues using LEDs.
For the most comprehensive treatment, we recommend a multi-wavelength approach using red wavelengths and NIR wavelengths. This ensures that the light affects inflammation and lymphedema-related swelling in multiple strata of the skin and underlying tissue, including muscles and the interstitium.
The PlatinumLED BIO series features a choice of 660nm red light, 850nm NIR light, or a combination of both. The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series features a combination of the five most studied and effective wavelengths of red/NIR light simultaneously. For localized conditions, you could use a smaller panel; if a condition is more widespread or is located in the legs, you will get better results with a larger panel.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Can lymph vessels repair themselves?
Ans: Lymphatic vessels are able to naturally reconnect with remaining lymphatic networks after tissue transfer. By using progenitor cells for eg: mesenchymal stem cell, it is possible to increase lymphatic regeneration and restore lymphatic fluid flow.
Q. Does red light therapy help lymphatic drainage?
Ans: Unfortunately not. Many claims that red light therapy activates the lymphatic system to help “detoxify” the body but there is no clear evidence of such kind.