If you have an injury that causes pain and inflammation, you may benefit from working with a healthcare professional, like a physical therapist or chiropractor, to help you recover. Your therapist may use a variety of treatments to help decrease your pain and improve blood flow to inflamed tissue. One such treatment is called cold laser therapy. Cold laser therapy is also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT).
This article helps you understand what cold laser therapy is and how it can be used to help treat injuries. It will also examine the research surrounding cold laser therapy to help you decide if it is something you should pursue for your specific injury.
Cold laser therapy is a type of treatment in which low-intensity light is applied to your body, typically over injured or inflamed tissue. The low-intensity light, referred to as "cold laser," is thought to improve blood flow and decrease pain and inflammation to injured tissues.
Cold laser therapy should not be confused with high-intensity laser that a surgeon may use to cut through tissues. The light-emitting diodes in cold laser therapy are not powerful enough to cut tissue, but they are strong enough to penetrate your skin and promote healing after injury.
Cold laser therapy uses light photons that are introduced to your skin with a wand that contains several light-emitting diodes. As the photons enter your skin and pass through injured tissue, chemical changes to the mitochondria of the cells occur, signaling them to increase the production of adenosine triphosphate. This is theorized to cause positive healing to those tissues.
But not just any light will work for this healing process to occur. Low-level laser therapy, typically at 600- to 1,000-nanometer wavelength, is best to increase blood flow and improve healing in injured tissues.
Your healthcare provider may use cold laser therapy to treat a variety of conditions. These may include, but are not limited to:
Any soft tissue injury that causes pain or inflammation in your body may benefit from the use of cold laser therapy.
When deciding to have cold last therapy for your injury, your healthcare provider should explain to you the goals of the treatment. Also, they should discuss with you the expected benefits and risks associated with cold laser therapy.
Pros of cold laser therapy include:
Risks to cold laser therapy are minimal, but you should understand them. Cons to having the procedure done may include:
Having realistic expectations of using cold laser therapy for your injury can help you make an informed decision as to whether to have the treatment or not.
If you and your healthcare provider choose to use cold laser therapy for your injury, it helps to understand what to expect during the treatment. During cold laser therapy, your affected body part will be exposed, and you and your healthcare provider may wear special goggles to shield your eyes during the treatment.
Then, a small wand with light-emitting diodes will be touched to your skin and held in place for a few seconds. The light will be applied to your affected skin and injury site for about 30 to 60 seconds.
Is It Painful?
You should not experience pain during treatment, and no heat is generated by the light. If you are experiencing any pain or symptoms, tell your provider, who may need to reposition your body or halt the treatment.
After treatment, you should also not feel pain or discomfort.
Many healthcare providers will have you perform gentle exercises for your condition to help improve the range of motion (capability of a joint to go through a spectrum of movements) and strength of your affected body part. Keep in mind that low-level laser therapy should be one part of your total rehab experience; research supports exercise and movement for many musculoskeletal injuries.
When choosing to have cold laser therapy treatments, you should have an idea of the research surrounding the therapy. There is some research supporting the use of low-level lasers for back pain, neck pain, and tendonitis.
A 2015 meta-analysis (examining data from a large number of independent studies) found that cold laser treatments can have a positive effect on pain reduction in people with low back pain. The studies did not show an increase in functional movement, however.
Another meta-analysis found that joint pain can be lessened with the use of cold laser therapy. Again, no benefit was found of improving overall function in patients getting the treatment.
If you have tendonitis (inflammation of a tendon, which attaches muscle to bone) or tenosynovitis (inflammation of the tendon and the sheath surrounding it), your healthcare practitioner may choose to use laser therapy for you.
A 2021 meta-analysis of using cold laser therapy for tendinopathy concluded that "there is very-low-to-moderate quality evidence demonstrating that photobiomodulation (cold laser) has utility as a standalone and/or adjunct therapy for tendinopathy disorders."2
There is a mixed bag of scientific research indicating that cold laser therapy may be beneficial for pain relief in certain conditions. However, it may not be effective in improving function in musculoskeletal conditions. (And maybe the placebo effect is at play with some studies. Perhaps improvements in pain were found due to the patient getting any sort of treatment for their condition.)
Have a discussion with your healthcare provider before starting any cold laser treatments for your condition.
Does Cold Laser Therapy Work?
There is some evidence that cold laser therapy helps decrease pain, but improvements in functional mobility are not typically seen with cold laser therapy as a standalone treatment.
If you are suffering from pain or limited motion due to a soft tissue, joint, or tendon injury, you may benefit from working with a physical therapist to return to normal activity. Your therapist may use a variety of treatments, and one may be cold laser therapy.
Cold laser therapy, also known as low-level light therapy, is a therapeutic modality used to improve healing and blood flow to injured tissues. It is a painless procedure, and it may be done as part of a well-rounded rehab program including exercise and functional mobility.
Cold laser therapy is a painless procedure involving the introduction of light of specific wavelengths to injured tissues. The light creates a photobiomodulation effect, increasing blood flow and speeding cellular processes to improve healing. If you are injured, ask your physician if cold laser therapy is right for your specific condition.
Experiencing chronic pain affects every area of life. Thankfully, there are many different options to help reduce and manage pain. While research regarding cold laser treatments is limited, published data indicate that it may decrease pain for certain conditions, but it may not do much to improve function.
Pain management is usually multifaceted, so talk to your healthcare provider about additional rehabilitation techniques. They may decide to combine cold laser therapy with other treatments, including a physical therapy routine, medications, and different medical procedures.