A decades-old treatment is slowly gaining credibility as a difference-maker for people with certain medical conditions, particularly in the areas of skin care, wound recovery and joint pain. Noninvasive and widely considered safe, red light therapy promotes healing at a cellular level, leading scientists to explore its other potential healthcare applications. While costs may prove prohibitive for many, and definitive evidence of some purported benefits has been – and may continue to be – slow in coming, its relatively few risks may make it an option to consider.
Red light therapy is an emerging treatment in the growing field of photomedicine. Hungary’s Dr. Endre Mester first discovered its benefits in 1967, after laser light tests on shaved rats appeared to help heal their wounds and re-grow their fur. NASA also explored this technique to help plants grow in space and reduce astronaut muscle atrophy.
Dismissed as bogus science in its early years, studies now support the theory that limited exposure to light in the 620-750 nanometer wavelength can help treat some medical conditions. The U.S Food and Drug Administration now clears it for a few uses, including easing joint pain and treating slow-to-heal wounds. Clinicians recommend it to their patients for a wider array of reasons, either by itself or in conjunction with photosensitive drugs. Noninvasive and with virtually no adverse side effects when used as directed, this therapy’s primary controversy is that some claims about its benefits are not yet supported by quality clinical trials.
How It Works
Red light therapy usually involves patients spending short periods of time exposed to a light panel, full-body bed or a handheld device. The light particles penetrate a few millimeters beneath the skin’s surface, activating chromosomes and strengthening mitochondria, which energize our cells. This extra energy helps cells function more efficiently, making them more able to rejuvenate and repair themselves.
The effect is similar to the way that mild triggers of our natural fight-or-flight response, can energize and benefit us. The light wavelengths used in this therapy are nontoxic, painless and do not contain the ultraviolet rays that have long been linked to cancer.
There’s been a great deal of research showing that red light therapy helps the skin by increasing collagen production, reducing inflammation and improving blood circulation to tissue. The effect is skin rejuvenation and improved elasticity. With less inflammation, slow-healing wounds, such as diabetic foot ulcers, burns and surgical scars heal more quickly. Red light therapy appears to also effectively treat cold sores from herpes simplex.
Evidence dating back to those initial rat studies also show light exposure appears to help treat pattern hair loss. One review of studies found subjects, both male and female, wound up with slightly thicker, denser hair after red light therapy. There’s some evidence it may also be helpful in easing pain from certain conditions, including neuropathy, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, and it’s even earned FDA approval to ease side effects of common cancer treatments, particularly skin damage and hair loss from chemotherapy and radiation. However, there has been no solid evidence showing red light therapy shrinks cancerous tumors or slows their spread.
Unsubstantiated claims of treating cancer and other conditions often overshadow red light therapy’s proven benefits. Researchers have also been unable to prove that it helps with weight loss, cellulite removal, detoxification or common dental issues. There’s also insufficient evidence that it helps with depression or seasonal affective disorder, although white light therapy is a widely accepted option for the latter.
Other areas show promise, but the body of evidence remains incomplete. A December 2021 review noted red light exposure may help athletes improve performance and injury recovery times, but noted that additional research is necessary. There are also early indications that red light therapy may improve sleep quality for shift workers or those otherwise unable to spend time in the sunshine. Studies haven’t found it directly treats acne, but may help our immune system fight acne-causing bacteria and could work in concert with medication.
Perhaps the most consequential promising area involves brain health. Red light therapy’s ability to reduce inflammation, improve blood flow, and rejuvenate cells may help ease factors believed to cause Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, especially accumulations of amyloid protein plaques in the brain. A study on stroke patients found faster recoveries and better outcomes among patients exposed to near-infrared light, with similar recoveries expected in people with traumatic brain injuries. By increasing blood flow and stimulating the regrowth of neurons, red light therapy could also help those with traumatic brain injuries recover. Scientists working in this realm are hopeful, but they know there’s a lot of work still to do.
A reason why there haven’t been more random, placebo-controlled trials on red light therapy is that it’s uniquely difficult to study. We spend our days exposed to natural and artificial light, making it tough for scientists to measure a subject’s total light exposure. There also may not be any effect-free sham light sources to use as placebo. These and other obstacles will slow the path of definitive evidence.
A downside is that red light therapy is expensive, though prices vary widely based on whether you get it at a clinic or purchase an at-home device. To see results, you may need weeks of treatments – perhaps two or three visits a week to start with – and Medicare, Medicaid and most private health insurance plans don’t cover it. Some people may consider buying a home unit, but these are admittedly pricey, with the best models reaching into six figures. Suitable at-home devices can be purchased for as little as $60, but many other options are available.
The Bottom Line
Red light therapy’s noninvasive, painless properties and its power to energize and rejuvenate cells make this a promising area for ongoing research. While the jury is still out on some of its purported benefits, the cost may be the biggest downside of trying it under a doctor’s care. As additional evidence supporting its benefits becomes available, better acceptance and accessibility should follow.
7 thoughts on “Is It Red Light Therapy’s Time to Shine?”
Can you recommend appropriate device/sfor home or in-office use?
FYI: the dpl IIa Panel (LED Technologies) for red-light therapy is an HSA-eligible item. I bought it a couple of years ago via my work Health Savings Account. Check out: https://hsastore.com/dpl-iia-professional-acne-treatment-light-therapy/24446.html
Look on utube for ways around that. It is out there!! not as nice but works.
Very interesting article! However, the author does not state which types of red lights were used in the various research, except for Dr. Mester’s seminal research. I have a red light belt, which I never use and don’t feel is effective. It is LED based, which does not have the heat-based infrared frequencies. However a Weber laser watch with various light frequencies, including red, with various wands for topical, oral and intranasal applications, seems fantastic. LED lights do not heat up, a safety advantage but a health disadvantage in my considered opinion. If we seek to replicate the low-end frequencies of natural light, we cannot cut off the bottom end without suffering. Top end UV is a different story.
Dr. Michael Hamblin, Ph.D., an associate professor at Harvard Medical School is the world expert on red light therepy and recomends red light in the 850 nanometer range. I was having memory proplems in my 70th year so built my own red light helmet using 2 infrared secuity lights (which are 850nm lights and a string of leds and it has had a noticeable difference in my memory.
I am glad to see red light therapy being exposed to more people. I believe its merits are just now beginning to surface, though the potential was recognized decades ago. Red light, using LEDs(not lasers) has been shown to reduce the severity of mucosal lesions in the mouth and throat that can be caused by certain chemotherapy drugs and/or radiation. A study done in Israel had very remarkable results, and this protocol is being used at the University of Alabama Medical Center.
My wife had ovarian cancer and we treated her throat and mouth with a simple flashlight with red LEDs and were able to avoid the painful mouth sores that often accompanied her cancer treatments.
I believe that future treatments will become discovered using the various wavelengths associated with different colors. Red light therapy is just the beginning.
Can you please tell us what brands of red light therapy are recommended. Thank you, Rebecca