How Does Red Light Therapy Work?
Medically, red light therapy (RLT) has been used for wound healing and to treat psoriasis and side effects of chemotherapy. Scientists believe that the treatment allows the mitochondria to produce more ATP, the substance that provides energy for cellular processes. This is the source of the accelerated healing, reduction of inflammation and pain relief.
Light in the red spectrum can penetrate the body much deeper than the light from other wavelengths. This means that it can have an effect on the whole body, not just on the skin or isolated body tissues. Because RLT increases circulation and mitochondrial energy production, for example, it causes changes in the entire body, not just in the area being treated.
How is Laser RLT Different from a Laser Peel?
Although it can be performed with a laser, red light therapy is not the same as a laser peel. Like chemical peels or dermabrasion, laser skin resurfacing is designed to remove a layer of skin to encourage the growth of new, unblemished skin. Red light therapy has a much lower intensity and doesn't damage the cells in any way. The purpose of RLT is to stimulate the healing and regeneration of cells.
Is Red Light Therapy Effective?
Although RLT has been shown to be effective in minimizing pain and healing wounds, there is controversy about its use. The main objection is that it doesn't provide any better outcomes than other treatments that have been traditionally used for these medical problems. However, standard treatments like drugs can have unwanted side effects. And there's substantial evidence of the benefits of RLT for the prevention of some side effects of chemotherapy.
A recent clinical survey concluded that photobiomodulation (red light therapy) was beneficial "for a broad range of acute and chronic side effects associated with cancer therapy." The results are especially positive for the treatment of oral mucositis, a side effect of cancer treatment that causes mouth ulcers. Further, the study noted that immune support cells and oxygen increase in the areas targeted by RLT.
At this time, there's no solid evidence that red light therapy has an effect on nerves other than causing pain relief. One 2016 study did reveal a possible link between RLT and improved nerve function, but this is a preliminary finding that deserves more study. Anecdotal evidence from treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome also indicates that there may be some benefit to nerves from RLT treatment.
How is Red Light Therapy Administered?
Red Light Therapy has been approved by the FDA, and it can be administered at a dermatologist's office or in a cosmetic setting by a trained esthetician (more on that below). LED lights are often used for red light therapy because they don't emit heat like halogen or incandescent bulbs. LED bulbs can also be specifically programmed to emit only the narrow spectrum of light that's needed for the therapeutic effects of RLT. In a clinical setting, low-energy lasers may be used instead of light bulbs.
People don't actually see the color red in the small slice of the light spectrum that's used for RLT. In fact, it's invisible to the human eye. Wavelengths between 650-840 nm have the greatest effects on cells, and the red light wavelengths penetrate 8-10 mm beneath the skin. There's no accompanying heat, so the person receiving the treatment feels nothing.
BENEFITS OF RED LIGHT THERAPY
Here are some of the improvements caused by RLT:
- Increases Cell Energy Production
- Stimulates Collagen Growth
- Stimulates Lymph Flow
- Increases Blood Circulation
- Creates New Capillaries
- Reduces Inflammation
- Relieves Pain
Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy
Wound HealingThe increase in cellular energy and accelerated immune support are the primary reasons that red light therapy promotes wound healing. RLT also improves circulation, which brings fresh nutrients to the wound site to aid in repair. Also, the availability of new collagen and the reduction of inflammation allows the tissue to heal more rapidly.
Rheumatoid ArthritisRed light therapy is of particular benefit to those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis since the symptoms include swelling, inflammation and pain. Increased collagen production can help relieve joint stiffness, and the anti-inflammatory properties reduce swelling. The pain relief provided by RLT can also reduce the dependence on prescription medications for pain.
Cancer Treatment Side EffectsSeveral side effects of cancer treatments can be helped by RLT. It's well-documented that red light therapy has a healing effect on ulcers in the mouth caused by radiation therapy. It can also reduce fluid retention in the lymph glands (lymphoedema) and stimulate the overall flow of the lymph system. Radiation therapy can lead to reddening of the skin, inflammation and rashes, and RLT helps relieve these symptoms as well.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The wound healing properties of RLT have been well-documented, and there's preliminary evidence of its effectiveness in reducing symptoms for people who experience carpal tunnel syndrome. The anti-inflammatory properties of RLT are relevant since carpal tunnel syndrome involves ligament inflammation. There's often pressure on blood vessels and RLT can increase circulation in the affected area.
Restless Leg SyndromeThis is a chronic discomfort in the legs that can only be relieved by moving them frequently. Restless leg syndrome can interfere with sleep since it usually appears during rest. There's some evidence that it can be alleviated using red light therapy. Up until now, there haven't been many options available for improving the condition, and drugs have been a primary treatment.
AcneRed light therapy is used to treat acne in conjunction with medications that are activated by the light waves. Photodynamic light therapy for acne requires several treatments, and most insurers don't cover the cost, considering it an elective procedure. However, the anti-inflammatory benefits of RLT are a good fit for the reduction of acne lesions, and this is a treatment that can be performed at home without the accompanying medication.
Cosmetic Benefits of Red Light Therapy
The use of red light therapy at home is typically referred to as ‘light box therapy’. This is a generalized red light treatment for overall skin health. Dermatologists and physicians perform the targeted RLT that works on specific areas of the body, as in wound healing or pain relief treatment. Trained technicians at health spas may also use low-level laser therapy (LLLT) such as red light therapy.
For home red light therapy, light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs provide the same benefits. There are various options, including a mask that fits over the face, a handheld light for targeting specific areas, and a screen that provides red light to larger areas of the body. At a spa or salon, there are red light therapy beds similar to tanning beds.
Stimulation of fibroblasts in the skin leads to increased production of collagen, the tissue that gives skin elasticity and a smooth texture. This is the material that causes skin to have a plump, healthy appearance, and it can minimize fine lines and wrinkles that would otherwise be more prominent.
The circulatory system brings vitamins, minerals, hormones and vital oxygen to your skin. It also removes toxins and wastes and helps your skin stay hydrated. Increased blood circulation keeps your skin healthier and better able to fight off the bacteria that contribute to acne.
Fading of Scars & Stretch Marks
Although there's no hard evidence that RLT fades scars, the overall improvement in cell function could lead to increased cell turnover that minimizes them.
This is a benefit of red light therapy that's backed up by plenty of evidence. Originally discovered as a byproduct of another experiment, the ability of RLT to promote hair growth is well established. It stimulates hair follicles that have been dormant and causes them to begin growing hair again.
Reduction of Skin Redness
One of the most noticeable effects of RLT is the lessening of redness caused by conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. Increased blood flow leads to a decrease in skin inflammation, and the energy boost allows skin cells to heal faster. Besides improving the appearance of skin, RLT also reduces the itching or burning sensations caused by these skin conditions.
Improvement of Sun-Damaged Skin
Red light therapy supplies the energy, nourishment and immune support needed for healing sun-damaged skin, and healthy skin is better able to fight off further damage. The best way to protect your skin is by applying a 30-SPF sunscreen to exposed areas whenever you're in the sun, and red light therapy is another valuable addition to your healthy skin arsenal.
Side Effects of Light Box Therapy
There are no reported side effects of cosmetic red light therapy (RLT), but those who are photosensitive should exercise caution in the long-term use of this technique. Also, as with many treatments, certain herbs and drugs may interact with RLT. It's best to clear it with your physician before beginning light box therapy, either at home or at a salon.
Because of the ability of red light therapy to stimulate cell growth, there's also been concern about the possibility of it stimulating tumor growth. However, RLT studies that included the presence of them showed no growth in tumors. Rather, experiments resulted in a slight reduction in their size. In the low doses that are most effective in red light treatment, tumor growth is not considered to be a danger.
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) is FDA approved for pain relief and wound healing. The documented increase in cellular ATP provides energy that's used for quicker healing of wounds and repair of skin. Immune function is improved with RLT because immune support cells cluster at the site of the treatment. The pain-relief effects of red light therapy have also led to scientific speculation that it can improve the function of nerves.
There's significant evidence that RLT reduces inflammation and dilates blood vessels, improving drainage from the lymph system. The improvement in circulation also brings nourishment to wound sites for quicker healing and speeds up the removal of waste products. New blood capillaries have even been formed after several treatments with red light therapy.
Overall, users have reported an improvement in skin tone and complexion after using red light therapy. RLT accelerates the healing of wounds, and this applies to acne lesions and cold sores that can be a source of concern. The acceleration of collagen growth gives support and fullness to the skin that can minimize wrinkles. As new skin cells are produced, cell turnover may also lead to less-noticeable scar tissue and stretch marks.
Improved blood circulation provides oxygen to the skin and gives it the vitamins and minerals needed to for optimal health. Red light therapy is effective at stimulating hair growth from dormant follicles. However, it won't create new follicles, so it doesn't lead to hair growth in places that don't already have it. Red and rough patches on the skin caused by conditions like rosacea and eczema are also significantly improved by RLT.