The Mechanisms of Red Light Therapy for Pain Relief and How to Benefit from Them

Written by

There is a quiet epidemic sweeping the world. The one that we rarely talk about and that isn’t visible at first sight. According to the CDC, just in the US around 20.4 percent of adults live with chronic pain. Out of those, around 8 percent have high-impact chronic pain.

That is a staggering number of people, and it doesn’t even account for people suffering from acute pain. Another estimated 17.6 percent of Americans experience severe acute pain. This results in a whopping 115 million ER visits every year.

Pain can be very disruptive and it can seriously affect a person’s quality of life. That is why finding effective treatment options to relieve pain is a constant quest in medical science.

But before we get into pain relief, let us first understand more about pain, what causes it, and how pain works.

Why Do We Feel Pain?

Pain is, essentially, a notification system. It alerts you that there is some degree of tissue damage present somewhere in the body. In that sense, in most cases, pain is just a symptom of some injury or condition.

The pain receptors in the damaged tissue send a signal to the brain using neurons and the spinal cord. The brain processes the pain signal and that is how you become aware that some part of your body hurts.

Is Red Light Therapy the Same Thing as Low-Level Laser Therapy?

Red light therapy and low-power laser therapy, although both are a kind of light therapy, are still two different types of treatment. The confusion probably comes from similar names, since red light therapy does come in the form of low-level laser therapy, cold laser therapy or soft laser therapy. Another commonly used name and an umbrella term, is photobiomodulation.

The other possible source for the confusion is that both laser and red light therapy treatments are commonly used for skin rejuvenation, collagen production, and various skin conditions.

Red light therapy, on the other hand, is a treatment that uses diodes that emit red and NIR light (near infrared). While low-level laser light can use the same wavelengths, the delivery is much more different than through LEDs.

Not to be confused with regular laser therapy, this kind of light therapy is not in any way damaging or invasive, and there are no adverse effects. It is important to know these facts to better understand the mechanisms of red light therapy for pain relief.

What Is the Science Behind Light Therapy?

The LED diodes in a red light therapy device emit light of a certain spectrum – visible red light and invisible near infrared light. Even intense light from these frequencies does not involve heat, but is able to penetrate the skin and affect our body from the cellular level up.

The frequencies from a light therapy device mimic the natural light that you get from the sun at dawn and sunset. Our bodies are attuned to this light, and it stimulates and supports multiple natural processes which help the body function efficiently.

The story of how red light therapy was discovered is a story of a lucky chance. Initially, this technology was not intended to be used on people at all. NASA developed it as part of its experiments on plant growth in space. The astronauts noticed that the red and near infrared light intended to stimulate the plants also promoted wound healing and helped them recover from injuries faster.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work for Pain Relief?

The explanation for this is complex. There are several mechanisms of red light therapy for pain relief.

Mitochondrial Support

Red light therapy benefits for the body start with individual cells, in the part of the cell called the mitochondria. The mitochondria are the place where energy production and cellular breathing happens.

Mitochondrial dysfunction can sometimes trigger inflammation. If left unaddressed, more serious chronic inflammation eventually leads to inflammatory disease.

These diseases – which are often neurodegenerative or neuromuscular in nature – are characterized by fatigue and pain.

Red light therapy boosts cellular division and energy production, while lowering the number of harmful free radicals. This results in more energy that the body can use to heal and decrease inflammation, and less mitochondrial damage, which, in turn, leads to lower pain intensity.

Improved Blood Flow

Better circulation is one of the key elements of healing. When an injury happens, it often involves swelling and localized acute inflammation. In those cases, especially when the injury persists, most people reach for pain medication, usually nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and if that isn’t enough for pain relief, even opioids. Research shows that a significant percentage of patients treated for substance abuse suffer from chronic pain.

Red light therapy boosts blood flow in the treated region. The improved circulation reduces swelling, drains excess fluids and brings relief for persistent acute inflammation.

A more vigorous circulation also benefits patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis is characterized by a condition called joint hypoxia – lower oxygen saturation in the joints. When the blood circulates better, it brings more oxygen to the affected regions, thus reducing chronic inflammation and alleviating joint pain. This suggests that improved blood circulation is crucial in treating rheumatoid arthritis, among other conditions.

Boosting Serotonin and Endorphins

With red light therapy, happiness starts in the skin. Insufficient exposure to sunshine can cause seasonal affective disorder. However, what rarely gets talked about is that low levels of serotonin and endorphins are also linked to pain. They are key factors to the mechanisms of red light therapy for pain relief.

These two types of chemicals function in a different way, but the results are similar.

Low serotonin levels are quite common in conditions such as fibromyalgia, marked by chronic pain. However, too high serotonin levels can lead to pain in the peripheral nerves. That is why with serotonin, balance is of utmost importance.

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that block pain. When released, these neuropeptides bind themselves to opioid receptors in the nerves and inhibit the release of a protein called substance p, which is a key player in pain transmission.

Red light therapy mimics the natural effects of sunshine, regulating serotonin levels and stimulating the release of beta-endorphin.

Supporting The Immune System

The immune system plays an important role in pain regulation. When an injury or an infection happens, it immediately activates protective mechanisms in the body. The immune cells create  inflammation as a response.

However, the immune system is also the one that resolves the problem by producing agents that have pain relief properties and reduce inflammation.

Studies have found red light therapy safe and effective as a method to boost the immune system. Not only does it increase lymphocyte proliferation, it also helps regulate cytokines and stimulates T regulatory cells.

More Restful Sleep

The importance of rest in recovery should not be overlooked. Recovery mostly happens when you sleep. A recent study on the effects of sleep on recovery from muscle tissue injuries shows that sleep deprivation both exacerbates the risk of injuries and slows down the healing process.

Red and NIR light therapy mimics the naturally occurring light which rules the circadian cycles. Red light therapy appears to significantly decrease the influences of blue light from the various screens we use every day.

A Healthy Gut Flora

Red light therapy has anti-inflammatory effects on the gastrointestinal system. The connection is twofold.

One of the main causes of gastrointestinal pain is out of balance gut flora. Red light therapy has an antifungal effect, which is significant when you know that an overgrowth of Candida can lead to bloating and pain.

Red light therapy regulates the gut microbiome in other ways too: it lowers the numbers of harmful bacteria in the intestine, and reduces the number of H.Pylori in the stomach – the bacteria that causes ulcers.

What Are The Benefits of Light Therapy (LLLT) for Pain Relief?

Through its various mechanisms, LLLT can not only treat pre-existing conditions such as back pain but also prevent pain from happening. Several studies have concluded that red light therapy before exercise helps prevent delayed onset muscle soreness.

Low-level light therapy is particularly useful as a non-invasive alternative to laser surgery for different injuries and conditions.

Can You Do Low Level Light Therapy at Home?

This kind of therapy is an excellent treatment option for pain relief. In the past, a red light treatment for pain management was something that you could only get from healthcare professionals because of the sheer size of red light therapy devices.

Nowadays, red light emitting diodes come in small, wearable devices like FlexBeam, which are ideal for home use. Because of their size and moldable shape, they are a good option to treat even places that are otherwise difficult to reach, such as neck pain. The mechanisms of red light therapy for pain relief are not negatively affected by the portable size.

Red light therapy products like FlexBeam can be your targeted daily treatment for relieving pain. Because red light wavelengths are a harmless and very mild form of stimulant for the cells, these devices are ideal, safe, and effective treatments for home use.