Pain management represents a growing segment of the American healthcare system, with specialized clinics popping up in communities and medical centers at a seemingly overwhelming rate. Is it any wonder, though, when the National Institutes of Health cites worldwide research that indicates 35-40% of all adults suffer from a chronic pain condition? Injuries, repetitive stress, autoimmune disease, and inflammatory conditions all fall under this umbrella, and each can have a serious negative impact on a person’s functionality, quality of life, or ability to work.
Limited treatment choices often compound the problem, as many pain management specialists rely on drug therapies to relieve symptoms. Though they can be quite effective, many of the drugs that work best for chronic pain have the potential to be addictive or can cause unpleasant side effects. Injections and surgery carry significant risk as well, and can require a long recovery time.
Many patients and even practitioners aren’t aware that there’s a non-invasive, painless, and drug-free alternative that could manage many of these symptoms and chronic pain conditions, however. Deep tissue laser therapy (also known as cold laser or low-level laser therapy) has shown promise in helping to relieve pain and loss of function associated with a number of chronic health issues, and has demonstrated very few adverse effects.
Muscle Spasm/Myofascial Pain Syndrome
In this study from the American Academy of Pain Medicine, individuals with pain and muscle spasm related to Myofascial Pain Syndrome underwent a two-week trial of laser therapy for their symptoms. Pain and muscle dysfunction was rated by observation as well as a clinical muscle pain detection device. When the participants were re-evaluated after 30 days, nearly 78% reported improvement, with 22% of those rating themselves “very much improved” and 33% indicating moderate improvement. Interestingly, application of the muscle pain detection device showed that in 71% of patients who had painful “trigger points” prior to treatment, none were detectable after treatment.
The American College of Sports Medicine evaluated range of motion and daily function in the neck, back, and shoulders in 39 women with fibromyalgia, then divided them into two groups: one that would receive laser therapy, and another that would receive only a placebo applied with a similar-looking device that emitted a non-therapeutic red light and mild heat. Both groups were treated with the devices twice a week for 2-4 weeks.
Both groups completed range of motion testing and a daily impact questionnaire before treatment began, and again at the conclusion of the treatment period. Only the group who received laser therapy showed significant improvement in muscle function/range of motion according to the standardized performance tests. The laser therapy group also demonstrated lower scores on the impact questionnaire after treatment, meaning that their fibromyalgia symptoms were not having the same negative effect on their daily lives as they were prior to treatment.
Prestigious medical journal The Lancet published the results of 16 randomized controlled trials (studies comparing a treatment group and a control/placebo group), which accounted for a total of 820 patients with acute neck pain. While not all of the studies attempted to measure the same effects, as a group they strongly supported improved in duration and intensity of pain in laser therapy participants. Seven of these studies also demonstrated that pain relief persisted up to and potentially beyond follow-up periods of up to 22 weeks. In each study, side effects of laser therapy were mild and were no different than the ones observed in the placebo groups.
The results of this analysis strongly suggest that laser therapy is a very safe and effective form of therapy.
Low Back Pain/Sciatic Pain
This University of Colorado Denver article was submitted by a chiropractor who tracked the treatment of 55 patients with non-surgical lower back pain (sciatica). The patients agreed to participate and were then divided into two groups, one which received chiropractic adjustments only and one which received adjustments coupled with laser therapy. Although every patient demonstrated improvement in symptoms after 4 weeks, the group receiving laser therapy showed a greater reduction in perception of pain and dysfunction.
This study of ten subjects with chronic tendinosis affecting the forearm and wrist was published by the American College of Sports Medicine, which again used a “fake” laser with half of the patients in order to evaluate the effects of a low-level therapeutic laser. Each subject was evaluated for pain, range of motion, strength, and level of internal inflammation before any treatment began, and the same tests were repeated after treatment.
While the study group was quite small, the results so far strongly support laser therapy as a safe and helpful intervention for tendinosis. Before treatment, the two groups were almost indistinguishable: They both demonstrated similar levels of pain, loss of strength and range of motion on the affected side, and visible indicators of tendinosis on ultrasound imaging. After treatment, only the laser therapy group showed a trend for increased strength and decreased levels of pain. The researchers plan to follow up at 3, 6, and 12 months to note whether these effects last, or whether there may have been other changes between the groups.
The Bottom Line
If you’d like a quick overview of how exactly laser therapy can help to reduce pain and inflammation associated with these and other chronic conditions, check out the video below: