Laser therapy is a new and promising alternative to opioids for chronic pain
Chronic pain is defined as any type of pain that lasts for more than three months. About 30% of Americans are currently affected by chronic pain of some sort, causing many of these individuals to be impaired or disabled in their everyday lives.
For a long while, the most common method for managing chronic pain was with pain-relieving medications. Doctors would often tell patients to start with over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), and if those didn’t relieve pain, many would go on to be prescribed opioids. But this approach to chronic pain has proven to be misguided and ineffective for a number of reasons, including the fact that opioids don’t actually “fix” pain, and only serve as a temporary solution to a permanent problem for these patients. Opioids are also extremely addictive and associated with a significant amount of abuse, overuse, and overdose-related deaths that are rocking the country in the midst of an ongoing epidemic.
In response, medical professionals are trying to change this trend and recommend effective alternatives treatments to their patients instead of opioids. There are number of alternatives out there for chronic pain, but physical therapy is consistently recognized as one of the best available options, and it’s supported by medical literature as a beneficial method for relieving pain. A physical therapy treatment program can include a wide variety of strategies and interventions, and in some cases it’s paired with laser therapy, a newer, emerging treatment showing some promise for chronic pain patients.
The term “laser” is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Lasers are devices that are created artificially to emit light through a process called optical amplification. They produce a monochromatic (one color) light of a single wavelength in a very tight, narrow beam, that be used for numerous different applications.
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) is a non-invasive treatment that makes use of these beams of light for the purpose of alleviating pain related an injury or condition. LLLT uses a red infrared light and focuses it on areas that are damaged from injury or chronic painful conditions. When this laser is targeted upon a painful region of the body, particular changes take place within the cells in a process called photobiomodulation. When used properly and appropriately, the expected result of this process is less pain.
As the popularity of LLLT grows, it’s now starting to be used in physical therapy treatment plans for patients with conditions that can benefit from it, such as chronic pain. Patients with chronic pain that are candidates for LLLT are likely to experience shorter treatment times, reduced swelling from bruising and inflammation, and increased circulation to damaged cells while their pain is safely alleviated.
LLLT has also been the focus of growing amounts of evidence to better understand its effectiveness, much of which has been supportive. In one review, researchers evaluated some of the relevant research on LLLT for various conditions and found the following:
Studies have demonstrated that LLLT may have positive effects on symptoms associated with chronic pain.
The review also identified other studies that showed “LLLT caused an immediate decrease in pain for acute neck pain and up to 22 weeks in chronic neck pain patients,” and also a powerful, double blinded placebo control study that reported “a decrease in pain and increase in function in patients with knee pain.”
Patients dealing with chronic pain are therefore encouraged to see a physical therapist and ask them if laser therapy is right for their condition while avoiding opioids at any cost.