If you’re suffering from AC joint pain and haven’t found relief from traditional treatments such as rest, ice, and immobilization (which means extremely limited activities and persistent pain), or more intensive therapies, then you may want to explore red light therapy.
Red light therapy is not a cure for AC joint injuries but supports your body’s natural healing capabilities. This natural, safe, and noninvasive therapy has many applications including pain relief and regrowth of damaged cartilage. In this article, we’ll show you how red light can potentially restore your shoulder mobility, relieve pain, and help you regain your quality of life. We’ll discuss AC joint injuries and common treatments, how red light works, and how you can successfully treat AC injuries at home with red light therapy.
About AC Joint Injuries
The AC joint is a joint in the shoulder where two bones come together: the clavicle (collarbone) and scapula, which is part of the shoulder blade. The portion of the scapula that meets the clavicle is known as the acromion; thus, where the clavicle meets the acromion is called the acromioclavicular (AC joint).
A publication by Johns Hopkins Medicine explains: “Like most joints in the body where bones meet, there is cartilage between the two bones, which is the white tissue between bones that allows them to move on each other, like Teflon on two ball bearings.”
According to Johns Hopkins, the most common conditions affecting the AC joint are arthritis, fractures, and separations. Fractures can happen during a fall or an impact to the front/top of the shoulder. AC joint separation occurs from torn or stretched ligaments that cause the clavicle to come out of alignment with the acromion. This type of injury is characterized by intense pain and a prominent bump at the end of the collarbone.
Common Treatments for AC Joint Injuries
Doctors often advise patients to modify activity while an AC joint injury heals. In many cases, you may experience full healing within six to eight weeks after injury. But if your AC joint pain is the result of osteoarthritis, getting back to normal activity may mean steroid injections or even surgery.
Common treatments for AC joint pain include immobilizing the arm in a sling, applying ice packs, and using pain medication. After the pain eases, movement can help prevent a condition known as frozen shoulder, which involves stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint. Be sure to consult with your doctor, sports medicine professional, or physical therapist first, however, because excessive movement could potentially hinder the healing process.
An AC joint injury, whether it’s a fracture or separation, typically heals within six to eight weeks but in the meantime, there could be persistent pain and of course loss of use since the joint should be immobilized. In the case of a severe injury and/or persistent pain, cortisone injections may relieve symptoms. In some cases relief is permanent, but the effect is unpredictable.
The most aggressive treatment for AC joint problems is surgery, in which part of the clavicle is removed and damaged shoulder ligaments are repaired. Most patients can resume full activity within three months of surgery, although the actual healing time varies from person to person.
Those who suffer from AC joint pain will be pleased to know there is a therapeutic method that is safe and natural, relieves pain, and can allow a faster return to activity. That method is red light therapy.
Red Light Therapy: A Promising Alternative Therapy for AC Joint Injuries
Red light therapy is rooted in the centuries-old philosophy that light has healing properties—which time and time again has proved to be correct. Yet light’s ability to heal is highly dependent on its color because color determines the size of its wavelengths. Red light has the longest wavelengths in the visible spectrum, measuring from 630 to 1100 nanometers (nm).
The term “red light therapy” is used to refer to both red and near-infrared (NIR) light. Thousands of studies and scientific papers have shown that the most effective range of light wavelengths (known as the “therapeutic window”) is from 630 to 660nm (red) and from 810 to 850nm (NIR).
Red light therapy uses devices mounted with LED lights to shine concentrated beams of red and/or NIR light on the affected area to stimulate the ability of individual cells to process raw materials into energy, which is the basis of accelerated shoulder healing.
How does this work?
Within each cell are tiny organelles called mitochondria, which produce the energy that a cell uses to perform its functions. Different cells have different amounts of mitochondria because of varying energy needs: muscles contain thousands of mitochondria, while red blood cells don’t contain any.
If for some reason the mitochondria become unable to produce energy, these cells will start to exhibit symptoms of mitochondrial dysfunction or low energy.
Imagine you’ve just gotten home from an overseas vacation. You’re jet-lagged and you still have to show up at work and do your job. No amount of coffee seems to help and you drag through the day (or days) in a stupor until your body’s internal clock resets to your time zone.
It’s a lot like that with mitochondrial dysfunction. Depleted cells can’t perform at their peak! If you’re injured, cells need to replicate and repair themselves; but if they’re depleted, the process slows down, and healing may be impaired.
Therefore, stimulating the ability of the mitochondria to produce Adenosine Triphosphate (the primary fuel of human cells) can support peak cellular performance during the healing process. Long-term, red light can support optimal cellular performance throughout the body, especially if you use a full-body panel that exposes more of your cells to red light.
Below we’ll review each phase of the healing process for AC joints and explain how red light therapy supports the healing process in each phase.
The Acute Inflammatory Phase
The body’s immediate response to Injury (including joint injuries) is acute inflammation. This is what manifests as pain, tenderness, redness, and swelling. This phase of healing mobilizes the body’s resources to the area to bring nutrients and remove waste. The immune system is also stimulated during this phase to ensure that any open wounds are closed ASAP to prevent infection.
Red light has an interesting effect on inflammation. In a 2017 research paper, noted red light therapy expert Michael Hamblin determined that cells under oxidative stress (an effect of chronic inflammation) increased energy production following NIR light therapy, which stimulated the acute inflammatory response, but just as importantly, suppressed inflammation once this phase was complete. An out-of-control inflammatory response has been linked to chronic diseases including diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as delayed healing.
Healing requires increased blood and lymph flow to bring oxygen, white blood cells, and nutrients to the injured area and efficiently remove waste to prevent cell toxicity.
In a 2017 study by researchers from Austria, red light was found to promote the production of both cardiovascular and lymphatic endothelial cells, which form the outermost circulatory vessels known as capillaries.
The Regenerative Phase
During this phase, cell production increases to replace damaged or destroyed cells.
Just as you can’t function optimally when you’re exhausted or hungry, neither can your cells—and that includes their ability to repair and regenerate. However, rest and more food won't matter if your mitochondria can’t effectively convert raw materials into energy. When the mitochondria are not functioning normally, it is known as mitochondrial dysfunction.
Red light therapy effectively treats mitochondrial dysfunction. As red or NIR light photons absorb into the skin, they interact with photosensitive chromophores in the mitochondria. This, in turn, stimulates the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary cellular fuel.
Researchers from the University of California San Diego studied the effect of increased energy production on mitochondrial homeostasis (normal functioning). The resulting chain reaction of positive effects included improved microcirculation and increased collagen synthesis, both of which can support the healing of AC joint damage.
Collagen is a protein that’s essential for the regeneration of cartilage and ligaments, and the cells responsible for producing collagen are known as fibroblasts. In a 2015 study on osteoarthritis, researchers from Brazil found that red light boosted fibroblast production, which is encouraging news for treating damage to cartilage or ligaments.
Many doctors believe that the cartilage cushion that protects all bones found in joints cannot regenerate once it’s been damaged (this is a common cause for a knee replacement). However, a 2017 clinical trial found that red light increased the regeneration and thickness of cartilage.
The Tissue Remodeling Phase
Depending on the severity of the AC joint injury, this phase can last for months or years. This is when ligaments and cartilage adapt and restore partial or full shoulder joint mobility.
Pain typically subsides as the AC joint injury heals. Red light therapy can help with the healing process.
Although there are no studies specifically on the AC joint, a small 2011 study by researchers from Japan focused on sacroiliac joint disorders (in the pelvic area). After NIR treatment, participants had decreased pain as well as increased trunk mobility.
The next section explores how red light therapy can ease arthritis in the AC joint.
Red Light Therapy for AC Joint Osteoarthritis
Arthritis is a degenerative disorder that leads to the loss of joint cartilage.
Of the many types of arthritis, the most common is osteoarthritis which leads to wearing out of the smooth cartilage joint surface. Osteoarthritis is often caused by overuse and may not manifest until later in life. According to the Mayo Clinic, an estimated 80 percent of injured football players will likely develop osteoarthritis within 10 to 30 years of being injured. Any repetitive motion such as tennis or weightlifting, or repeated overhead lifting, could lead to arthritis.
If physical therapy or short-term use of pain medicine doesn't relieve shoulder discomfort, such as reaching across the body to put on a seat belt, then you may have developed osteoarthritis. Typically, the onset of tenderness, pain, and loss of range of motion is gradual but can be expected to worsen over time.
And the challenge with conventional arthritis treatments is that they don’t address the underlying cause.
- Modifying activity can offer relief, but it does not treat cartilage degeneration.
- Surgically removing part of the clavicle so that it doesn’t contact the acromion will relieve joint pain, but won’t promote cartilage regrowth. Cartilage degeneration could continue.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve the pain, but they only mask symptoms—and long-term use of NSAIDs has been linked to kidney damage, stroke, and heart attacks.
Unlike conventional treatments, red light works at the cellular level to gradually ease arthritis symptoms in the acromioclavicular joint and restore normal shoulder functioning. Red and NIR light has beneficial effects on chronic inflammation, collagen synthesis, circulation, and cellular energy whether you’re treating AC joint injury or chronic AC joint pain due to osteoarthritis.
To date, there are no studies specifically on the effects of red light on the AC joint. However, dozens of studies on osteoarthritis in facet joints, sacroiliac joints, and knees confirm its dramatic analgesic effect.
- In a study on osteoarthritis-related knee pain by researchers from Israel, patients receiving red or NIR treatment reported 50 percent pain reduction after only 10 days. The red light group also enjoyed a longer period of time before they required follow-up treatment.
- Another study with patients suffering from knee osteoarthritis was conducted by researchers from the Umm Al-Qura University Medical Center in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The researchers found that red light along with glucosamine/chondroitin supplements resulted in the growth of synovial cartilage. Synovial cartilage is the connective tissue that lines the inside of the joint capsule for smooth motion. This could be good news for AC joint pain sufferers because it means that the joint capsule (the bubble-like structure that surrounds joints including the shoulder) could be repaired.
- A 2013 review of 16 clinical trials involving 820 patients found that red light reduced arthritis pain immediately after treatment and for up to 22 weeks after treatment.
- A 2008 study conducted at the Peloponnese University in Greece found that red light therapy relieved frozen shoulder pain.
Treating AC Joint Pain at Home
Red light can be used to support treatments including physical therapy, pain medication, cortisone injections, or surgical procedures to restore normal shoulder mobility. Always perform any at-home treatments under the supervision of your doctor.
To assure success:
Invest in a quality red light device with high light output (known as irradiance) to ensure absorption deep into the body’s tissues. You won’t get good results with low-powered wands. Learn more about the best red light therapy devices here.
Combine the most widely studied and recommended red wavelengths (630nm and 660nm) and NIR wavelengths (810nm, 830nm, and 850nm) to achieve maximum therapeutic results. Red light has “skin deep” effects to help with increasing circulation and collagen production. NIR wavelengths absorb deeper into the shoulder, including bone, muscle, and connective tissue, to reduce inflammation, and promote cellular energy production. Only one device on the market delivers this combination: the PlatinumLED BIOMAX series.
Expose your acromioclavicular joint to the light for 10 to 20 minutes per session, three to five times per week for one to four months, or until symptoms ease. Be sure your skin is bare and not covered by clothing. Ongoing maintenance treatments can maintain AC joint health and restore strength.
Get Your Swing Back with Red Light
Whether you want to resume tennis or basketball games, swing a golf club, enjoy strength training, or simply not hurt anymore when reaching for objects on tall shelves, give red light a try! This safe, natural, non-invasive treatment can help your shoulder feel great again, restore your range of motion, and get rid of acromioclavicular joint pain. For more ways to use red light therapy at home, check out the PlatinumLED blog.