Cold Laser Therapy: Could Low-Level Laser Therapy Work for you?

cold laser therapy

Image: Svitlana Boyko / Shutterstock

When you think of lasers, you probably don’t immediately think of pain relief. But that’s the idea behind cold laser therapy, also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT). Touted as a non-invasive alternative to acupuncture and surgery, lasers have been used in medicine since the late 60s. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has broken lasers into categories or classes. Class 3B includes cold lasers or low-level lasers which are non-surgical. That is to say, they do burn or cut the skin. The first of these was approved sometime around 2001 and 2002, depending on your sources. Nevertheless, researchers have had plenty of time to experiment with and improve upon them. Strangely, however, the tests have been minimal, often poorly conducted, and tend to turn out conflicting information. So what’s the deal? What are so-called “cold lasers” used for anyway? And do they even work?

What is a Cold Laser?

Without getting technical, a “cold” laser is different from a surgical laser in that in cannot cut or burn through skin because it emits low levels of heat by comparison. Thus, the term “cold laser.” They are marketed as even having the ability to add energy to tissues. One company that specializes in cold lasers explains it this way: “The goal of laser therapy is to deliver light energy units from red and infrared laser radiation, called photons, to damaged cells. It is the consensus of experts is [sic] that photons absorbed by the cells through laser therapy stimulate the mitochondria to accelerate production of ATP. This biochemical increase in cell energy is used to transform live cells from a state of illness to a stable, healthy state.”

When the laser is applied to the skin, the photons are able to penetrate up to 5 centimeters below the skin. They penetrate even deeper than acupuncture needles, but without the sensation that often accompanies the puncture. Is it possible for lasers to successfully replace acupuncture as a painless alternative? One licensed acupuncturist states: “…there are multiple ways to move qi [pronounced “chi”] and blood in the body, providing excellent results without needles. Modern research has provided new opportunities for acupuncture treatments that did not previously exist, including microcurrent, magnetic treatments and laser acupuncture [using cold lasers].”

Cold Laser Therapies

Cold lasers have been used to treat the pain associated with fibromyalgia, but results are hit or miss in this department. Indeed, that seems to be the case with most everything LLLT is said to treat. Reported conditions include:

  • Acute and chronic pain
  • Smoking cessation
  • Back pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Bursitis
  • Hair growth
  • Muscle strains
  • Healing wounds
  • Tuberculosis

Actually, the list continues and is rather extensive. It just depends on the company doing the marketing. That sounds cynical, but it should be noted that some people do experience benefits from these treatments. And frankly, even if it’s placebo, it doesn’t matter. After all, healing is healing. In fact, the School of Public Health, a division of UC Berkeley, explains further: “It’s not clear how cold laser therapy might work, but it may have anti-inflammatory effects, help repair connective and other tissues, and release pain-relieving endorphins.”

But Does it Work?

Both UC Berkeley and question the efficacy of cold laser therapy. Specifically, both agree that it doesn’t appear to be any more effective than traditional physical therapies like hot or cold compresses. Indeed, Berkeley even adds that you should not expect to get the same kind of treatment from a cold laser device for home use compared to one used by a physician or acupuncturist. Not only is there skill in knowing where to apply the laser, but the quality of the device is certainly a factor. Purchasing costs seem to range from $200 to more than $20,000.

It should also be noted that mainstream insurance companies such as Aetna and Cigna do not cover cold laser therapy/LLLT due to insufficient evidence that it works. For the record, that doesn’t mean that they are correct in their assessment. It simply means that, at this time, they can’t justify covering this procedure without more proof through well-conducted studies. Also, apparently there are some companies that will cover this treatment since it’s offered by some physicians. Furthermore, that alone means that even certain healthcare practitioners find value in cold laser therapy. However, here’s what that doesn’t mean: it does not mean that you should run out and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a device with your fingers crossed and hope for the best. You should do a lot of research first. Try this therapy with a professional who is trained on the precise locations for application. Ask what kind of device they use. Then take it from there.

Have you had any experience with cold laser therapy? Did it work for you? What kind of healthcare practitioner performed the treatment and for what purpose? Please share your story in order to help others think critically about how to proceed with their own low-level laser therapy.