You’ve undoubtedly heard about red and near-infrared light therapy as a way to treat sore muscles and osteoarthritis joint pain, and even to enhance bone health.
If you’re wondering whether it’s worth adding near-infrared (NIR) light to your treatments, here’s how you can use it along with physical therapy to support and even enhance the effects of other therapies in your wellness center.
What You Need to Know About Near-Infrared Light for Physical Therapy
Red light therapy is a term that encompasses both visible red and invisible near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. It’s important to understand the differences between various types of electromagnetic radiation so you can give your clients the best physical therapy results.
Near-Infrared vs. Infrared: What’s the Difference for PT?
The term “radiation” can be scary, but all light (and all heat) is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Some of this radiation is perceived by the human eye as light; some is perceived as heat.
Wavelengths over 780 nanometers (nm) are considered infrared (IR).
NIR wavelengths (780 to 1000 nm but most commonly 810-850 nm) are used in red light therapy devices. These wavelengths absorb just below the skin, where they stimulate cellular energy and health by increasing mitochondrial production of more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary fuel of the body’s cells.
This benefits the cell directly, and on a bigger scale, the system to which the cell belongs. NIR wavelengths also increase blood flow, stimulate collagen synthesis, and reduce inflammation to promote accelerated wound healing and muscle recovery.
Mid-infrared (MIR) wavelengths, which range from 1000 nm to 3000 nm, penetrate deeper into the body’s tissues where they raise body temperature. As they heat the body, the body works to cool itself by increasing heart rate, cardiac output, and metabolism, which supports weight loss and healing. IR saunas that feature MIR wavelengths are used for overall health. Though therapeutic, IR saunas should be used with caution to prevent damage to heat-sensitive organs including the eyes and testes.
Far-infrared (FIR wavelengths), or those over 3000 nm, are rarely used for therapeutic uses because of their intense thermal effects. These wavelengths are closer to microwaves than to what we perceive as light.
Does it matter whether a wavelength is perceived as light or as heat? Yes.
All wavelengths have specific effects on human cells. Some effects are beneficial and some are harmful. For example:
- UV light improves chronic skin conditions, yet overexposure damages skin cells and is known to cause skin cancer.
- RLT stimulates mitochondrial energy production as well as collagen synthesis. According to a huge body of scientific studies, red and NIR waves do not cause damage to cells, while helping treat eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, age spots, and other signs of aging.
- MIR wavelengths activate heat shock proteins to stimulate cellular self-repair and regeneration; however, overexposure can damage heat-sensitive organs.
Red light therapy devices typically emit red and NIR wavelengths between 620nm and 850nm. The treatment within this range is considered light therapy and not heat therapy, even though there is a very mild heating effect with NIR waves.
How to Use Red Light Therapy In Your Wellness Clinic
Near-infrared light physical therapy is making huge strides in the physical therapy community both as a complementary and primary treatment. The benefits of red light therapy are numerous. Here are some ways that this natural, safe, non-invasive, and pleasurable treatment can help your clients achieve the results they want.
Management of Acute and Chronic Pain
Near-infrared light therapy has been consistently shown in clinical trials to be effective for treating sports injuries, overuse injuries, osteoarthritis, chronic low back pain, neuropathic pain, and even broken bones.
How can shining light on a painful area offer relief?
NIR therapy bridges the beneficial effects of light therapy and heat therapy:
- Like red light, NIR light stimulates cellular functioning and cellulite, boosts collagen synthesis, promotes blood and lymph flow, and reduces inflammation.
- Unlike red light, NIR light generates a small amount of heat in the body by exciting water molecules in the cells. Heat has been shown to have pain-relieving effects and to increase connective tissue elasticity, which is likely (at least partially) due to increased blood flow and a temporary mild inflammatory reaction.
It’s important to repeat NIR light generates very little heat. NIR light has been used successfully to treat conditions in heat-sensitive body parts, including the eyes and testicles. Light therapy helps relieve muscle and joint pain and has been proven safe and effective.
You can dive deeper into how NIR light treats aches and pains.
What does the research say?
A 2012 study by Chinese researchers observed the effects of NIR light on chronic pain, when used with nerve block (NB) or local block (LB). This three-week study evaluated the intensity of pre- and post-therapy pain in 52 patients with shoulder periarthritis (frozen shoulder), myofascial pain syndrome, or lateral epicondylitis.
The patients were randomly assigned to two groups: Group I received NB or LB along with near-infrared light. Group 2 received the same nerve or local block, but did not receive NIR light treatment.
Immediately after treatment, the researchers observed a significant difference between the test and control groups, with no side effects. They concluded that NIR light therapy effectively and safely treated chronic pain and that it has synergic effects with NB and LB.
The researchers also determined that the effects of the treatment are short-lived, which suggests that ongoing treatment could be beneficial in treating chronic pain.
Whether your clients come to you for improved motor capabilities after injury or for pain management, NIR light therapy could be a valuable asset that helps keep many problems from getting worse and promotes healing.
Rehabilitation After Injury
Near-infrared light therapy has been shown to accelerate healing of muscles, connective tissues, bones, the brain, and even heal nerves following injury. Photobiomodulation also effectively supports treatment of wounds that won’t heal.
21 healthy men and 18 women were observed after receiving active and sham red light treatments on the biceps muscle on two separate, randomized days. After treatment in a 2015 study, participants were asked to complete bicep exercises.
Participants receiving the NIR treatment experienced less strength loss before and after workouts due to muscle fatigue than participants receiving the sham treatment.
This study suggests that NIR light therapy can act as an ergogenic aid by improving skeletal muscle function. NIR could be a valuable treatment to assist rehabilitation after musculoskeletal injury.
Improving Bone Health
What if the injury includes broken bones, or if the patient is suffering from osteoporosis or other degenerative bone loss disorders? Near-infrared physical therapy can help.
NIR light has been proven to improve bone density by suppressing sclerostin, a glycoprotein that slows bone formation. And the stimulation of mitochondrial energy production, which is the hallmark of NIR light therapy, has a powerful ripple effect, reducing cell damage from oxidative stress, improving blood vessel formation, and stimulating bone growth by increasing collagen and procollagen production. This effectively treats mitochondria.
NIR light treatment is currently a popular part of the training protocols among individual athletes and professional sports teams. Improved bone density allows for more muscle density and strength, which leads to better athletic performance. As well, NIR light promotes recovery.
Various studies have shown that stronger bones make them more resistant to injury, and faster to heal in the event of a break or bone bruise.
There are many treatment options, depending on your patient’s particular needs.
Improving Osteoarthritis Joint Pain
Cartilage degradation is one of the main causes of joint pain. Scientists have long believed that cartilage regrowth is impossible, but there is some evidence to the contrary.
A 2017 study by researchers from Mecca, Saudi Arabia found that light therapy in conjunction with glucosamine/chondroitin supplements resulted in the growth of synovial cartilage within the joint capsule.
Another study that had similar findings was conducted in 2019 by researchers from Brazil. They found that treating rats with 850 nm NIR light resulted in increased cartilage density.
NIR light has also been shown effective in improving range of motion and flexibility, and helping prevent morning stiffness among arthritis patients.
How Effective Is Near-Infrared Light Therapy?
The big question, of course, is whether natural, non-invasive treatment with NIR light lives up to its potential in real life.
Based on numerous studies, near-infrared light therapy is highly effective; at the very least in a supporting role, and potentially in a leading role in physical rehabilitation and pain management.
Take chronic low back pain as an example. Low back pain affects most adults at one time or another. Those who develop chronic back pain are often willing to try anything to get some relief – and NIR light therapy is one such treatment. Here’s a brief look at how NIR therapy works to ease back pain, especially with regular use.
According to a 2015 study on pain from temporomandibular disorder (TMD), near-infrared light therapy has mild analgesic effects. This may be at least partially due to the slight thermal effect of NIR wavelengths.
But more than just temporarily relieving pain, NIR light helps address the root cause of chronic low back pain and supports the body’s natural healing mechanisms. Benefits include:
- Increased cellular energy, leading to enhanced cellular performance;
- Reduced chronic inflammation that could be contributing to pain;
- Activation of stem cells to speed up healing;
- Increased collagen production to help repair damaged muscle and connective tissue;
- Increased blood circulation and lymph flow.
For pain relief and restoration of mobility, it’s important to use NIR wavelengths. Red wavelengths can absorb about 3mm into the skin, whereas the depth of NIR wavelengths is about 10mm; thus, NIR light penetrates not only the skin but also underlying tissue, and even dense connective tissue and bone.
And NIR light carries no danger of the thermal damage that could come from extended exposure to longer mid-infrared wavelengths.
Red Light Therapy Is a Safe, FDA-Cleared Treatment
Many people ask if red light therapy, and specifically NIR light, is safe and if there are any side effects or contraindications.
When used as directed, red/NIR light therapy is safe. Some people may experience temporary tightness and redness of the skin, which is most likely due to increased blood flow to the area. Near-infrared light therapy is FDA-cleared based on numerous studies. That means the benefits outweigh the risks when used as intended. Red light therapy, as mentioned, has no known side effects. The scientific community considers it a safe modality for treating a wide variety of physical conditions including:
- AC joint pain
- General pain relief
- Improved physical performance (strength and endurance)
- Arthritis pain relief
- Faster recovery from sports injury
- Knee pain
- Facet joint pain
- Hair growth
Tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, hip pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain are a few other uses for NIR light.
Meanwhile, there may be other sympathetic benefits, including anti-aging and skin care treatment.
Give Your Clients Results with a Medical Grade Light Therapy Device
To achieve the desired results with your clients, it’s important to use a powerful medical-grade light therapy device – and you don’t have to seek out laser devices.
Many studies used lasers to deliver red and NIR light to the skin. Yet light-emitting diode (LED) devices are proving to be not only just as effective, but less expensive, safer, and more convenient.
Not just any LED device will do, however, because they’re not all suitable for professional use. Hand-held devices, masks, and pads can work to some extent, but not as effectively or efficiently as medical-grade devices.
A medical-grade device differs from a consumer-grade device in the following ways:
- Clinically proven beneficial wavelengths. These should fall within the “therapeutic window” of effective red (630–660 nm) and NIR (810–850 nm) wavelengths. The best devices use a synergistic combination of red/NIR light simultaneously.
- High light power output, known as irradiance. A larger device will have more power to deliver. Look for the highest light energy output when comparing devices. This is measured in milliwatts per square centimeter, or mW/cm² at 6” from the device. The higher the number, the more potent the treatment. Note the irradiance of PlatinumLED panels, which have higher light energy output numbers at suboptimal distances than some panels show at 6”. The BIOMAX 900, for instance, delivers 135 mW/cm2, which puts it at the top of its power class.
- The device is manufactured in an FDA-approved facility.
The presentation of a medical-grade light therapy device in your clinic could be a key selling point for clients, especially given the staggering amount of consumer-grade red light therapy devices on the market.
Important Features that Enhance Treatment Outcomes
Purchasing a medical-grade light therapy device is the first step toward achieving exceptional results for your clients. However, there are a few additional considerations that will make the experience more pleasurable for them – and amplify the effects of the treatment.
- Choose a large modular panel that can be mounted to a horizontal or vertical stand. Light therapy devices that can’t be mounted on a stand may limit the patient to standing for the duration of the treatment (10 to 20 minutes), which is not always feasible and rarely comfortable if one is in pain. Horizontal stands allow the patient to lie comfortably on a massage or exam table while receiving treatment.
- Choose devices that can be linked to one, two, or three additional panels to increase the treatment area. BIOMAX panels are designed to be linked together to allow for deep total body coverage at maximum power.
- For the most effective deep tissue absorption, position the panel(s) within 6” to 8” of the targeted treatment area, which concentrates the light energy.
- Ten to 20 minutes is the recommended exposure time during a single session; anything over 20 minutes appears to have diminishing returns. What is more important than the length of the treatment is consistency since the treatment works at a cellular level. The best results come from daily treatment for acute conditions and three to five times per week for chronic conditions.
- NIR light therapy is not a quick fix – it works at the cellular level. While it does offer some immediate relief, the real benefit comes from consistency. It takes time to produce collagen, regrow tissue, allow cells to heal from chronic inflammation, and so forth. Set the expectation with your clients that NIR is a long-term approach, not a band-aid.
NIR Light Therapy for Your Wellness Clinic
There are relatively few costs associated with bringing a quality red light therapy device into your clinic. These include the cost of the panel and a stand. Potentially, you may consider purchasing up to four modular panels that can be mounted on a horizontal and/or vertical stand.
Privacy is the key to success. The treatment must be applied to bare skin, which will necessitate the availability of a private space where patients can undress at least partially to expose the targeted area for 10 to 20 minutes of treatment.
You can expect a very quick return on your investment. Offering red/NIR physical therapy can enhance results and increase patient satisfaction. Many physical therapists charge $50 to $150 per treatment session, and most conditions will require at least one month of treatment to see profound results.
The SaunaMAX Pro is also available. It has the same technology as the BIOMAX Series, but is waterproof and heat resistant, intended for in-sauna use. It's the ideal RLT panel for home sauna users for are also red light therapy enthusiasts.Discover more uses for near-infrared light therapy on the PlatinumLED Learn page, and check out the world’s most powerful modular red/NIR light therapy devices.