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Can red light therapy really work for pain?

Man treating pain with red light therapy

Finding drug-free remedies can be an important part of pain management, and red light therapy (RLT) is one promising option. Learn more about how it works and whether it’s right for you.

When you’re living with daily or chronic pain, there’s a good chance you’ll need to treat it from several angles. One might be medication. Another might be acupuncture or massage. And now you have one more option: red light therapy (RLT). Here’s a look at how it works and whether it’s a smart choice for you.

How does red light therapy (RLT) work?

Red light therapy (RLT) uses low levels of red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths of light, which penetrate deep into the layers of skin to increase energy inside cells. (Other color wavelengths, such as ultraviolet, blue and green, don’t go as deep.) This power surge, it’s theorized, can increase your cells’ ability to repair and improve their overall efficiency and function. RLT is also thought to decrease inflammation, which can lessen pain.

RLT is also referred to as low-level laser therapy because the amount of power is low compared to other forms of laser therapy, such as ablation. You may also hear it called non-thermal LED light (light emitting diode), according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Research on RLT has shown positive results. Studies show that RLT can help with certain conditions, such as musculoskeletal pain and burns. Although more research is needed about the best dosage for each condition, results are promising. And many doctors and health care practitioners are considering RLT as one of their tools. (Learn more about how LED light therapy can also help improve acne.)

One of the biggest advantages of RLT is that it can be used on specific parts of the body. Oral pain medication, on the other hand, works on pain chemicals and nerve endings all over the body. “Red light treatment delivers focused pain relief,” says Michael Newman, MD, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, California. “That makes it highly flexible for addressing a variety of conditions.”

Oral pain medications can have unwanted and serious side effects, including stomach issues, rebound symptoms and even the risk of addiction. Having an alternative that might help reduce the dosage of a pain medication is welcome for many people coping with chronic pain.

The Optum Store has a wide range of over-the-counter pain relief products, including FDA-cleared red light therapy devices. Shop now.

What types of pain can RLT treat?

RLT is most commonly used for wounds, including burns and scars, according to Tabitha Cranie, MD. She’s a family practice physician in St. Petersburg, Florida.

There is also evidence that RLT can be effective in treating other conditions. A study in the journal Laser Therapy found that athletes who had muscle injuries were able to return to their sport more quickly after using RLT.

Pain-related conditions that RLT may be helpful for include:

  • Achilles tendinitis
  • Bone recovery pain (from a fracture)
  • Diabetic foot ulcers and foot neuropathy
  • Joint and neck pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Wounds and burns

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How is RLT used?

RLT is available in several forms. There are “red light beds” that look like tanning beds (they’re generally considered safe and don’t have the skin-damaging light used in typical tanning beds). And there are handheld devices, which are offered at dermatologist offices and spas and can also be used at home. Unlike high-power lasers, RLT typically doesn’t cause skin damage because the low-power light sources don’t generate as much heat, preventing your skin from getting too hot.

How to incorporate RLT into pain management

RLT can be used on its own or as part of a larger pain-management approach. That’s particularly important since many people are concerned about pain medication use, including addiction, adverse side effects and increasing tolerance.

RLT may be combined with other pain-relief options such as physical therapy, massage or acupuncture. Over-the-counter medications can also be used for acute pain. Experts say lifestyle changes can also be important, including stress reduction, exercise and healthy eating. Combined with RLT, these changes could make the treatment more effective, suggests Dr. Cranie.

Check with a doctor before going the at-home route

Red light therapy is often done at a doctor’s office, but there are also over-the-counter devices that are FDA-cleared for RLT pain relief. Because getting the correct dosage may be tricky, Dr. Cranie recommends first checking with a doctor or health care practitioner trained in how to deliver RLT.

That way, they can determine the right settings for your specific condition and level of pain and, if appropriate, recommend at-home devices that are effective and safe. Make sure to follow directions closely to avoid misuse.

If you’re suffering with chronic pain, it can’t hurt to talk to your doctor about RLT. Because it has very few, if any, side effects, it may be just the thing that will give you the relief you’re looking for.

If you need a prescription renewal, you can fill it through the Optum Store and have it sent directly to your home for free. Learn more.

Additional sources
Red light therapy basics: Cleveland Clinic (2021). "Red Light Therapy"
Red light therapy and muscle pain: Laser Therapy (2016). “830 nm Light-Emitting Diode (LED) Phototherapy Significantly Reduced Return-to-Play in Injured University Athletes”
Healing effects of LLLT: Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery (2013). “Low-Level Laser (LIght) Therapy (LLLT) in Skin”
Concerns about addiction and pain medication: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). "About CDC’s Opioid Prescribing Guideline"

This article originally appeared on Optum Store.

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