Light - what an amazing and mysterious form of energy!
Visible light is just a small part of the type of energy known as the electromagnetic spectrum, which is made up of all the energy varieties that travel through space.
Without light, there would be no life at all.
Light is a subject that scientists have long taken seriously and have studied in detail. The radiation in this spectrum comes in many forms, each with a different wavelength.
Some forms that we can’t see, such as radio waves, have wavelengths that are a few miles long, while others, like gamma rays, have wavelengths that are tiny - waves smaller than atoms.
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The light we humans are able to see, the visible light, falls in the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum. Light allows us to perceive the world around us.
Kids learn from an early age that what might look like white light is actually made up of all the colors of the rainbow. Prisms help kids and grownups to understand that idea.
Sunlight itself contains a unique and mystical power to heal the human body.
Science has been steadily tapping the underlying cellular mechanisms that are linked to the full spectrum of light. What they’re finding is mind boggling.
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy and near-infrared light therapy are part of a biomedical field of study that’s growing rapidly.
It’s been increasingly affirmed by both medical and veterinary communities.
Many claim that red light therapy has the ability to battle the aging process, relieve pain, and heal everything from sore muscles to insomnia, and even cancer!
But is this science, or is it a fad?
Some pretty unusual or downright false claims have been made about red light therapy.
It’s crucial to separate the legitimate uses from the myths for improving one’s health through the use of various forms of light.
Fortunately, a large number of studies from reliable sources have already been completed.
What’s unique about red and near-infrared light wavelengths, as opposed to white, blue, or green light?
Red light is unique in that it can be absorbed into the skin to a depth of about 8 to 10 millimeters, rather than just being reflected off the skin.
This makes it possible to deliver a myriad of positive changes to the body.
This isn’t a new concept, though. The known benefits of exposure to sunlight, which of course includes the red and near-infrared part of the light spectrum, have been recognized for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
People frequently feel better and undergo various health benefits when exposed to a safe amount of sunshine.
Discoveries are constantly being made about the cellular and molecular mechanisms of using light on the human body.
Research has shown that the range of conditions that benefit from this type of treatment is far more extensive than once believed.
Red light therapy has been known by other names for almost 50 years. It’s also been called Low-Level Laser Therapy (LLLT), “soft” laser, “cold” laser therapy, and biostimulation (BIOS), photonic stimulation, or light box therapy.
Many researchers in the field of study called light therapy refer to using light for treatments as photobiomodulation (PBM).
Much of the current ongoing research is uniquely focused on red light and near-infrared light.
Spas, gyms and dermatology offices were among the first locations that promoted red light therapy for beauty and health treatments.
But now home use of red light therapy devices is becoming common. Devices that use LEDs are easy to find by doing a quick search online. They come in all shapes and sizes.
Part of the reason the market is growing so quickly is that LEDs, light emitting diodes, are now common and are much less expensive than they were earlier. LEDs are durable and have a long life, too.
Another reason for the proliferation of these tools is the fact that FDA approval isn’t needed for low-powered LED devices.
These devices have been approved for sale as devices for improving your health.
The makers are not allowed to market them as devices that can cure a specific disease.
Instead, they fall under the category of “general health and wellness.”
Nearly any area of your body that you believe would benefit from stimulation by light is a possibility for red light therapy.
And since it can be done in the comfort and privacy of your own home, the appeal is obvious.
How were the benefits of Red Light Therapy discovered?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) played a vital role in the process.
They were looking for answers to two important questions:
- What kind of food will astronauts eat and what is the best way to grow it during deep space exploration missions?
- Could red light therapy be a way to treat muscle atrophy, bone density issues, and slow wound healing caused by weightlessness during space travel?
When researching food for space travel, they discovered that the nutritional quality of vegetables used to feed astronauts is impacted by the type of lighting used to grow them.
Red and blue lights, in particular, brought about better results, but plant nutrition wasn’t the only exciting discovery.
They found the general health of the astronauts was impacted by light therapy also.
“The application of light therapy with the use of NASA LEDs will significantly improve the medical care that is available to astronauts on long-term space missions. NASA LEDs stimulate the basic energy processes in the mitochondria of each cell, particularly when near-infrared light is used to activate the color sensitive chemicals inside.”
- Reported by NASA -
What makes Red Light Therapy different from laser treatments?
The red light therapy being discussed here is not the same as laser treatments you’ve read or heard about for hair removal, scar improvement, treating veins, retina operations, surgeries and more.
It can be a bit confusing if you’re not differentiating between the two.
High intensity lasers are typically for treating a localized area, where LEDs have the advantage of being able to treat a larger surface area all at one time.
It’s possible in some cases that LEDs can be both time-saving and more economical.One dermatology site provides some technical details:
It is important to understand that there are two kinds of light therapy. The first type of light therapy is called light box therapy. (This is the type that we’ve been reviewing.)
It is a more generalized treatment that does not target specific areas of the body. Targeted phototherapy (that’s traditional laser) is designed to send rays to specific areas of the skin through the use of an excimer laser. (This is done by medical or skincare professionals in an office setting.)
The first laser was built in 1960. Laser is shorthand for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
This radiation is created when electrons become more energized than their normal state because of receiving energy from an electrical current.
When the electrons return to a normal state, they release energy particles called photons.
The photons are all launched in a cohesive group in the same direction. In other words, it’s a blast of energy.
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Here’s why it’s crucial to understand the difference - when used for skin rejuvenation, a regular laser is first traumatic to tissue.
It causes controlled damage to the surface and under the surface, which then leads to healing and tissue repair, hopefully with the desired positive results.
But red light therapy and near-infrared therapy are “atraumatic,” meaning no trauma to tissue is involved.
Their wavelength is too broad to cause cancer, unlike UV light. The effects of these light therapies are chemical, not thermal (involving heat).
The initial destructive step created by a high-intensity laser is eliminated when using red light therapy.
Instead, there is a direct regenerative process that takes place on and under the skin, and in the tissues.
For certain deep tissue conditions, a focused laser beam may be more effective than a large LED array.
There are significant differences between the high intensity laser and the low wavelengths of LED light therapy.
Both have solid evidence to support the proper use of them. Both of them have ideal applications, as well as clear pros and cons for use.
Make sure you’ve done adequate research and are well informed so you get the results you’re looking for!
What are some of the trustworthy studies and published work relating to Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is clearly a promising field of treatment, but just like all popular non-traditional approaches to health, make sure you exercise due diligence.
Don’t believe everything you hear or read.
Just because there is information on the internet that sounds credible doesn’t mean that it can be trusted.
It may be great information, or it may be partially true, or it could even be completely inaccurate.
Anecdotal evidence (evidence that’s collected in an informal way and relies mostly on personal testimony) is not the same as sound scientific research.
Let’s look at what’s being published in recent scientific studies and based on the findings of genuine investigation.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) studies are reliable. Health websites like NIH that are sponsored by Federal government agencies are judged to be good sources of information. This type of agency documents extensive scientific research, and NIH is the largest biomedical research agency in the world. What are some of the NIH studies saying about red light therapy?
Soon after the discovery of lasers in the 1960s, it was realized that laser therapy had the potential to improve wound healing and reduce pain, inflammation, and swelling.
In recent years the field sometimes known as photobiomodulation has broadened to include light-emitting diodes and other light sources, and the range of wavelengths used now includes many in the red and near-infrared.
LLLT has become an increasingly mainstream modality, especially in the areas of physical medicine and rehabilitation.”
More information on sports injuries, rehabilitation and physical therapy with red light will be covered later in this article.
Another NIH study begins with an explanation that “light-emitting diode-red light phototherapy may represent an important advance in light-based treatment modalities because it is non-invasive, inexpensive, portable, and easily combinable with other therapies.”
“...Serious life-threatening diseases such as stroke, heart attack, spinal cord injury, and traumatic brain injury may soon be amenable to LLLT therapy.”
Researchers are hopeful that future technology will uncover even more specific uses for red light and near-infrared light therapy.
Dr. Michael Hamblin, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Medical School and member of the affiliated faculty of the Harvard MIT Division of Health, Science, and Technology, is regarded as an expert in the field of light therapy.
He’s written several textbooks on the topic.
Hamblin notes there are five thousand peer-reviewed papers to provide evidence supporting the benefits of red and near-infrared light therapy.
That large base of clinical research is climbing quickly each year, and Dr. Hamblin himself has published over 400 papers on the topic.
You may discover that many doctors and other practitioners of traditional medicine are unfamiliar with red light therapy.
This isn’t all that surprising. Conventional medicine tends to be wary of alternative methods of treatment, and is often slow to accept or implement them.
A pharmaceutical (i.e. medication) approach is the generally accepted first line of defense for health, especially in the United States, rather than seeking out alternative treatment options that aren’t based on taking medicine.
In addition, drug company representatives work directly with doctors to provide information to them on a regular basis about new medications.
There just aren’t the same marketing and sales incentives for pharmaceutical representatives when it comes to advocating for the use of red light devices.
Proven Medical Uses of Red Light Therapy?
Despite a slow start, red light therapy is being used in medical office settings.
It has been shown to be effective when used to treat skin conditions like slow-to-heal wounds, burns, rosacea and other difficult to treat skin conditions.
Light therapy for eczema though, is usually done using ultraviolet (UV) light, rather than red or near-infrared light.
Red light therapy is able to make some contribution to treating acne, but it is generally not as effective as topical treatments and oral acne medications.
Insurance may not cover the cost of acne treatments using red light therapy either, so it’s best to check on coverage before committing.
On the other hand, there are several good reasons or situations where it makes sense to consider red light therapy for acne.
Some people can’t tolerate the oral medications due to stomach upset, dizziness, and sensitivity to the sun that comes along with taking the antibiotics.
Some doctors don’t want patients to stay on the type of oral antibiotics prescribed for acne for long periods.
They often tell their patients to only use these medications for the shortest amount of time possible.
Pregnant women are not able to use oral prescription medications for acne.
In all of these cases, red light therapy may be the best alternative (or supplemental) treatment, even if it doesn’t work as well or clear up the acne as quickly as traditional approaches.
Wound healing is another confirmed use for red light therapy. The National Institutes of Health has confirmed that phototherapy, either by laser or LED, is effective in promoting the healing of skin wounds.
In situations where there are slow-healing or persistent wounds and inflammation, which can often happen in the aged or those with auto-immune issues, light therapy appears to speed up the process.
One worldwide research journal that’s peer-reviewed, Hindawi, publishes articles focused on the areas of science, technology, and medicine.
They have promising data for diabetics: “Phototherapy has been shown to be beneficial in treating diabetic ulcers which are unresponsive to conventional treatments.”
This is huge since a very large percentage of diabetic amputations begin with foot ulcers.
Improved hair growth from red light therapy is another use that’s been proven.
NIH concluded from one study that there were significantly improved hair counts in males with male pattern baldness, a common type of hair loss.
The results were similar in another NIH study done specifically with women suffering hair loss.
The studies note that a professional should be consulted since the treatment in these cases has to be very specific in order to work well.
Most people have undoubtedly seen the scary headlines about a type of staph infection called Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) that’s become resistant to treatment with drugs.
NIH has found that near-infrared lasers can hamper the membranes of microbes without harming tissues.
It’s possible the power of light will eventually help defeat MRSA where drugs have failed.NIH is doing trials with red and near-infrared light therapy to fight cancer cells. Here are two descriptions of how this can work:
- Photoimmunotherapy involves “using an antibody–photoabsorber conjugate that binds to cancer cells. When near-infrared light is applied, the cells swell and then burst, causing the cancer cell to die. Photoimmunotherapy is in clinical trials in patients with inoperable tumors.”
- Although red light therapy is not a direct treatment for cancer, it’s an important component of PhotoDynamic Therapy (PDT). PDT uses specialized drugs called “photosensitizing agents” along with light to kill cancer cells.
These drugs are activated by certain kinds of light. The drug is absorbed by the cancer cells.
Then, when light is applied it causes the drug to react with oxygen forming a chemical that kills the cells.
Photodynamic Therapy may also destroy the blood vessels that feed the cancer cells.
Beauty & Anti-Aging Uses of Red Light Therapy
There is wide agreement that red light therapy improves the quality of skin in two ways. Some even go so far as declaring the therapy “a miracle for anti-aging.”
Two components of skin, called collagen and elastin, are affected by red light therapy. Collagen plumps up the skin and elastin firms the skin. Here’s how it works:
First, red light therapy increases collagen synthesis.
Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in the human body. About one-third of the protein found in our bodies is this fibrous, insoluble protein.
These fibers are found in the skin, bones, tendons, muscles, and connective tissue, and they are flexible and strong. Collagen provides our skin with suppleness and flexibility.
Unfortunately, our production of collagen decreases in the body as we age.
This happens due to a decrease in fibroblasts, which are the cells responsible for manufacturing and maintaining collagen synthesis.
Smoking and exposure to ultraviolet light such as too much sun exposure also decrease levels of collagen.
MedicalNewsToday.com explains the importance of collagen, and what happens as collagen levels decrease:
- In the dermis, or the middle layer of skin, collagen helps form a fibrous network of cells called fibroblasts, upon which new cells can grow. It also plays a role in replacing and restoring dead skin cells.
- Some collagens act as protective coverings for delicate organs in the body, such as the kidneys.
- With age, the body produces less collagen. The structural integrity of the skin declines. Wrinkles form, and joint cartilage weakens.
- Women experience a dramatic reduction in collagen synthesis after menopause.
Secondly, red light therapy has been shown to improve the level of elastin.
Elastin is another protein that gives structural support to our skin, and provides elasticity or “stretchiness.”
It allows tissues in the body (like skin) to resume its shape after stretching. As collagen and elastin decrease, the skin becomes thinner and more fragile with age.A study from NIH confirms that skin improves with red light therapy. The results verify the “efficacy and safety for skin rejuvenation and intradermal collagen increase,” “visible reduction of fine lines and wrinkles,” and “significantly improved skin complexion and skin feeling” from light therapy.
That’s exciting news since lotions and creams have not produced significant results despite the hype that’s typically used to advertise them.
Injections or creams don't stimulate collagen and elastin production, but red light therapy appears to do this reliably.
There’s also evidence that red light therapy can help improve the look of pigmented spots, such as freckling and age spots.
One other beauty benefit from red light therapy that should be mentioned is the way it helps users to relax.
Who wouldn’t look younger after a soothing time spent away from the cares of the world?
Users report that consistent use of red light therapy promotes better sleep at night.
Since sleep deprivation has been linked to faster aging, red light therapy may promote better skin and overall health simply because of the relaxation factor!
Red Light Therapy for Athletic Performance & Recovery
There are growing endorsements for the use of red and near-infrared light to reduce pain and help the body recover from a variety of categories of pain and injury.
Dynatronics, a manufacturer of LEDs for Low Level Therapy (red and near-infrared) shares some of these on their website:
“One of the first uses of LLT was in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome, where it has proven effective in reducing pain and improving grip strength in mild to moderate cases.
It has also shown promise in the treatment of chronic pain and a variety of sports injuries, and it may even have applications in neuro-rehabilitation.
Likewise, LEDs have clear benefits for wound care, burns and skin conditions, and the treatment of muscle damage and inflammation.
For therapists who work with active populations, LEDs can even enhance muscles’ contractile ability and post-exercise recovery—a significant performance benefit for hard-training athletes.”
Some athletes use red and near-infrared light therapy either before exercising, during exercise, or afterwards to help with muscle recovery and minimizing soreness that can result.
There seem to be mixed opinions about which approach maximizes the effectiveness of this.
Exposure to red light both before and after exercise is a combination that some experts recommend.
If you run or lift weights each day along with red light therapy on a daily basis, either before or after, there can be a dramatic enhancement.
What about using red light therapy prior to an important athletic event?
Tests done with mice and rats clearly showed that 3 hours ahead of time was best.
With humans the optimal time hasn’t been determined, but using it just prior to an event would almost certainly help warm up the muscles.
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Red Light Therapy for Chronic Health Conditions
Dr. Michael Hamblin, the expert on photobiomodulation referenced earlier, delves into a number of other health issues where light therapy promises fresh hope.
He has high hopes for further developments in the field of photobiomodulation because the therapy stimulates cells to do whatever they’re meant to do.
With more extensive research dedicated to light therapy, sufferers of all types of physical ailments could experience new, less invasive approaches to find relief from symptoms, and even cure the conditions themselves.
One such area is Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder. Those who suffer with it have an immune system that attacks their thyroid gland, resulting in an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).
When thyroid hormones are low, it adversely affects many of the body's functions.
Hamblin says the research regarding light therapy for this particular disorder is “extraordinarily impressive,” and many people can either lower their thyroid medications or go off them completely.
He explains that in any autoimmune disease, the over-activated immune system is attacking the host.
Because red and near-infrared light therapy actually changes the cells on the mitochondrian level, a significant anti-inflammatory healing process takes place.
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Improvement in blood circulation through light therapy, specifically the difficulty of lymphedema - swelling that occurs in one of the limbs - is another area being studied.
Once again we can look at a well-documented NIH study on the effectiveness of red light therapy to help solve this problem.
NIH investigated the effects of far infrared rays on lymphatic tissue in their study of 32 patients affected by lymphedema.
After therapy, the report showed “a significant decrease of limb circumference, and quality of life was improved.”
The conclusion of the NIH study is that far-infrared ray treatment could be considered as either a single therapy or in addition to surgical procedures for lymphedema.
Happily, the notable effects of the treatment have also prompted interest about other future applications in the field of medicine.
Chronic inflammation such as lower back pain, arthritic knee pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tennis elbow can lead to patients taking painkillers because they believe there’s no alternative.
The anti-inflammatory effect of red light has the potential to reduce or eliminate the use of addictive medications that have devastating effects.
Red Light Therapy and The Brain
An area that Dr. Hamblin is very excited about is research into the use of red and near-infrared light for three areas related to brain disorders.
Although the studies haven’t been done on a large scale, he references trials that indicate simply shining near-infrared light on the head can be helpful for serious psychiatric disorders.
These three areas include:
Sudden traumatic events: Stroke or other instances of oxygen deprivation, along with traumatic brain injury
Neuro-degenerative brain disorders: Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's
Psychiatric disorders that are slow to develop: Depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)
Hamblin refers to this and other related issues broadly as “improving emotional regulation”.
Since drug treatments for psychiatric diseases sometimes are not successful or can cause undesirable side effects, or may only work for a while, light therapy as an alternative opens up encouraging prospects to explore in the days ahead.
Another serious brain topic is dealing with addictions. Sadly, even after detoxifying former addicts can struggle with cravings that may remain for years.
Light therapy has been shown to be effective to some degree in dealing with these cravings.
Used this way, photobiomodulation has the potential to become a major contributor in solving the opioid dilemma.
Not only is light therapy a drug-free treatment, but it can also relieve the pain that often introduces patients to the use of strong painkillers.
Light therapy for the brain works by changing brain pathways. Dr. Hamblin believes that using the treatments for brain problems just before going to bed is probably the best timing, and doing so could even make for better sleep.
Are there safety issues to consider when using Red Light Therapy?
Since red light and near-infrared devices are non-invasive and virtually free of side effects, they’re considered quite safe.
Overdosing is rare, but like the beginning of any new treatment you’re wise to discuss your plans with your doctor.
Dermatologists may fully support your use of red light therapy in addition to other types of treatment.
Manufacturers of these devices recommend starting out slowly with 1 to 2 minutes of treatment on an area, and slowly increase the time in the days after.
If you experience unusual symptoms or any discomfort stop and back off on the dosage.
Ultraviolet light, which is what tanning beds use, is not and should not be included in any red LED light device.
When red light treatments first became popular, some owners of tanning bed facilities were replacing UV bulbs with red lamps.
They made claims about reversing sun damage and other types of skin rejuvenation with these red lights.
The FDA as well as some states expressed concern about this practice and the possibility of misbranding or misleading claims.
If you’re curious about the FDA’s stance on LED devices, you can search their database for details.
Many devices are advertised for purchase to use in your home.
This is truthfully a great idea - since regular treatments with red light seems to be the best approach, and it’s not simple to fit in regular light treatments when it requires traveling to an office setting.
The obvious advantage of having an LED device at home is that you can use it at least once or twice a day to treat yourself - right when it’s needed or convenient, rather than waiting for an appointment which may require having a therapist to help you.
The right kind of home LED device makes treatment quick and easy. You can use the device in any state of dress or undress.
Home red light LED devices in all shapes and sizes have mushroomed in recent years.
Small devices will need to be moved around if you’re treating larger areas, so treatment time is going to take longer sessions than when using larger devices.
One thing to keep in mind is that long periods of treatment might not be any more effective than shorter doses of red light.
In fact, there’s anecdotal evidence that too much red light can cause users to feel fatigue or otherwise less healthy, so you’ll need to figure out what works well for you.
Everyone is different genetically, and tend to fall into three groups - those who are very sensitive to light, those who don’t get much effect at all from light, and then the majority of people who are somewhere in the middle.
There’s very little evidence of concern for overdoing red light therapy or ending up with negative results from treatments.
Are there conditions Red Light Therapy doesn’t improve?
Be skeptical if you see claims that aren’t backed up by studies from reliable sources.
It doesn’t cure cancer, although it is used to activate some medications used in cancer treatment and seems to help alleviate some of the side effects of cancer treatment.
Some skin conditions respond well to red light therapy, but not all of them. Eczema is one good example. The light used to treat eczema is UV light, not red or near-infrared.
If you are in treatment for any disorders, always ask your doctor’s opinion about adding light therapy, and what kind is best for your specific condition.
Don’t overdo it and start slowly.
What other light treatment options are available?
Sunlight has some of the same benefits as you will get from a red or near-infrared LED light panel or small device.
But you do have to exercise caution to protect your skin from sun’s damaging rays, and sunlight isn’t available on rainy days or when the weather is too cold or hot to be in the sun.
Blue light therapy devices also are effective for acne treatments. Forms of blue light are good for enhancing teeth whitening treatments.
Some migraine sufferers swear by green light LED therapy for prolonged relief.
Undoubtedly, as more time and research is invested into the study of light there will be even more fascinating uses revealed.
Aside from these low level light options, there are all kinds of high intensity laser treatments available from those who are professionally trained to use them.
Some produce rapid results, while others have to be done over an extended period of time involving multiple treatments.
They can be too pricey for many people to seriously consider, and the ones done for cosmetic reasons won’t be covered by insurance.
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Final Thoughts About Red Light Therapy
If you choose high intensity over the low level light treatments, be sure to make a fully informed decision, knowing about risks and the results you can expect.
Don’t forget the underlying element of high intensity laser - it causes trauma first, after which healing takes place.
That’s the reason there is some level of pain associated with them.
It’s your body - getting educated as much as possible and asking for professional counsel is the best combination for safe and effective treatment.
With hundreds of medical studies that can be accessed online, you’re likely to find information to give you peace of mind about treatment decisions.