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The Potential Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Last Updated on: June 16, 2022

Reviewed By: Jessica Herzog, MD, FAAP, ABioM

Have you ever heard of red light therapy (RLT) and wondered what it’s all about? As it turns out, RLT may be a safe and effective treatment for a myriad of health concerns.

You may have seen red light therapy (RLT) offered in gyms, spas, or tanning salons and wondered what its benefits are. RLT is even offered in dermatology offices, lending credibility to its use. (1)

RLT is also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation (PBM). This therapy was discovered accidentally in 1967 when a Hungarian scientist attempted to cure tumors in rats with a low-powered laser. Rather than curing the tumors, the laser stimulated wound healing at the tumor sites. This discovery led to a series of papers on what became known as LLLT. LLLT was initially studied for wound healing and pain reduction in such conditions as neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tendonitis. Due to ambiguity in the term “low level,” LLLT became known as PBM. PBM has become known as red light therapy because during its use, your skin is exposed to a device with a red light.
(2, 3)

Interestingly, RLT rose to prominence in the 1990s when researchers were attempting to help plants grow in space. They found that RLT promoted the growth of the plants’ cells. Based on this information, scientists then studied whether or not RLT could increase energy in human cells. They found that RLT helped treat the side effects of weightlessness from space travel, including slowed wound healing, bone density problems, and atrophied muscles. (4, 5, 6)

RLT uses painless, low-level heat to help the cells’ mitochondria generate energy.

How Does RLT Work?

During an RLT session, your skin is exposed to low levels of red light, which your body experiences as heat. The light source is placed near the skin to allow its energy to penetrate into body tissues. This energy initiates a chain of reactions in diseased or damaged areas where it induces wound healing, tissue regeneration, and increased circulation. This light energy also helps reduce both acute and chronic pain and inflammation and restore normal cell function. (6)

RLT will not burn or damage your skin like laser and pulsed-light therapies, which purposely damage the skin to induce tissue repair. Because of its low level of heat, RLT eliminates this step and simply stimulates the skin. (3, 4)

Many potential applications of RLT are being investigated at basic and clinical levels. Now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved RLT for the temporary relief of muscle and joint pain, hair regrowth, and reducing fat stores in the body. The FDA has also approved some RLT devices for home use. (6)

RLT can speed up wound repair by stimulating new blood vessel formation.

What Are the Benefits of RLT?

Many studies have shown the promising benefits of RLT for several health issues.

Skin Improvement

A review in the publication “Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery” states that RLT may increase the production of collagen in the skin. Collagen is responsible for skin’s elasticity. The same review also notes that RLT may increase circulation between blood and tissue cells, reduce wrinkles and fine lines, and protect skin cells from damage. Another study from the journal “Photomedicine and Laser Surgery” found that RLT can improve the skin’s feel and complexion. (7)

Wound Healing

More studies are needed, but initial research in wound healing shows that RLT may accelerate wound repair by stimulating the formation of new blood vessels and reducing inflammation. RLT can also help the skin produce fibroblasts, which are connective-tissue cells that secrete proteins, especially molecular collagen. (7, 8)

Hair Growth

A study in the “Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy” revealed that RLT improved hair density in people with alopecia compared to people in the control group. Another study showed that men and women with alopecia grew thicker hair after using a home RLT device for 24 weeks. (3, 7)

Pain Reduction

RLT may also be effective for pain management in people with certain musculoskeletal disorders. The “European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine” gathered the results of many studies on this topic, and the research showed that RLT reduced musculoskeletal pain in adults. In one study, research revealed that participants experienced 50% less osteoarthritis pain when treated with red light therapy. (3, 7)

Anti-Inflammatory Support

The journal “AIMS Biophysics” states that a variety of the health issues that RLT can treat are rooted in inflammation and that RLT has substantial anti-inflammatory abilities. Researchers say that because of this, RLT may help treat chronic inflammation-based diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, tendonitis, psoriasis, and thyroiditis. (7)

Dementia

One small study looked at people with dementia for 12 weeks. Those who were treated with RLT experienced memory improvement, better sleep, and less anger. (3)

TMD Pain

Temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD) is characterized by pain in the jaw joint and in muscles that surround the jaw joint. Whether this happens due to arthritis, genetics, or injury, RLT has been shown to relieve pain, clicking, and tenderness in TMD patients. (3, 9)

Weight Loss

Along with diet and exercise, RLT may help you lose weight. Though more studies are needed, here are some initial results (10):

  • A study of 60 people showed the waist circumference of participants who received twice weekly RLT treatments was reduced by 0.8 inches (2 centimeters).
  • A double-blind study showed that 67 people who received six RLT sessions for two weeks lost significantly more — about 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters) — from their midsections, thighs, and hips than the control group.
  • Another two-week study at a U.S. clinic showed that 86 participants saw decreased waist size (1.1 inches/2.8 centimeters), hip circumference (0.8 inches/ 2 centimeters), and thigh circumference (1.2 inches/3 centimeters).
  • Another study compared the efficacy of RLT treatment with a placebo in 40 people. At the two-week mark, the RLT group saw a 1.5-inch (3.7-centimeter) decrease in upper arm circumference while the placebo group saw no change.

Red Light Therapy Pros and Cons

Pros

RLT is a promising therapy, and there is very little risk in using it. This is because RLT does not cause damage and is painless when used properly; it simply uses safe, low-level heat to stimulate energy and repair in the cells. (3, 7)

Cons

It may take several RLT sessions before patients notice improvement. Also, there are no guidelines on how much light to use. Using too much light may damage your skin, and using too little may not produce the desired results. Therefore, RLT should not be used without the advice of a doctor. Also, RLT is not covered by insurance and is not well studied for diverse populations. (3, 4, 7, 10)

The Takeaway

Now that you’re aware of the possible benefits of red light therapy, you can start to explore whether RLT is right for you or your family members. Take time to ask your doctor about this painless natural remedy.

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