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As recently as 10 years ago, photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT), also known as light therapy, was viewed disparagingly. Today it’s recognized in medical schools, scholarly journals, practitioners and therapists as a legitimate treatment for sports injuries, arthritic joints, neuropathic pain syndromes, and back and neck pain.

There’s also substantial anecdotal evidence that PBMT can provide rapid and lasting pain relief for burns, help treat age-related macular degeneration, combat central nervous system disorders such as MS, and successfully treat kidney issues for humans as well as cats. Light therapy is also now being used in dentistry in lieu of local anesthesia.

Photobiomodulation (PBM) is a term from the field of photobiology, which studies the biological effects of light wavelengths on living organisms. PBM occurs when light photons are absorbed by living tissue.

“Light is perhaps one of the most underappreciated healing agents available,” says natural health expert Dr. Joseph Mercola. He refers to photobiomodulation as “The medicine of the future, today.”

There are numerous examples of light induced photochemical reactions in biological systems. Our vision is based upon light interacting with photosensitive cells in our retinas called photoreceptors. When light is absorbed by these cells, a photochemical reaction occurs converting light energy into electrical signals that are transmitted to the visual processing centers of the brain.

Vitamin D synthesis in our skin is another example of a photochemical reaction. When the ultraviolet B (UVB) wavelength in sunlight strikes our skin, it converts a universally present form of cholesterol — 7-dehydrocholesterol — to vitamin D3.

The negative effects of the absence of light on the human body are also well known. Two examples include seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and lack of vitamin D production leading to rickets.

According to Mercola, photons can be absorbed by the blood flowing in the skin, and it’s known that light is very good at activating stem cells in bone marrow. He believes metabolic syndrome and diabetes are two other conditions that could benefit from light therapy.

“Photobiomodulation has been around for centuries but it’s only in the last 50 years that its mechanisms have become (at least partly) understood,” says Mercola. “Unfortunately, as the pharmacological paradigm grew, so did the emphasis on expensive and dangerous medications.”

With that said, not just any light will do. Photobiomodulation is a form of light therapy that utilizes non-ionizing forms of light sources including LASERS, LEDs, and broadband light, in the visible and near infrared spectrum. Specifically, this is a certain wavelength range on the electromagnetic light spectrum from 600-1000 nanometers, which includes near infrared light produced by incandescent bulbs, but not far infrared light produced by heating elements.

This range is known as the “mitochondrial stimulation band” (or “healing band”) because only these wavelengths of light stimulate the cellular mitochondrial light receptor enzyme, cytochrome-c oxidase.

When light from within this band of wavelengths is absorbed (eaten) by human cells, the cells respond by increasing adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production, releasing Nitrous Oxide, and forming Reactive Oxygen Species – all of which work to produce large-scale systemic health benefits.

Mercola describes the cytochrome-c oxidase mechanism this way:

When you breathe, the oxygen in your lungs is taken up by hemoglobin, which in turn is carried around your body by red blood cells. The red blood cells deliver the oxygen to every single cell in your body. Similarly, when you eat, the food is broken down into glucose, fats and glycogen, and that glucose is delivered to every single cell in your body as well.

Once it has been transferred across the cell membrane, the glucose is then broken down through glycolysis into ATP and pyruvate. Mitochondria take the pyruvate and breaks it down further. The resulting co-enzyme byproducts — ATP, FADH and NADH — are then combined with oxygen in the electron transport chain, which creates hydrogen ions that drive ATP synthase, an enzyme that creates ATP.

Normally, the terminal ends on the electron transport chain — the cytochrome-c oxidase — is taking up NADH combining it with oxygen and allowing two more electrons to be transferred from the electron transport chain. That pumps hydrogen ions through to drive ATP synthase to make ATP. This process works quite well when you’re healthy. However, when you get sick, injured, stressed or old, the mitochondria begin to make excessive amounts of nitric oxide.

Californian Helen Driscoll says she and her husband have been using photobiomodulation therapy for more than a year. She uses it for multiple reasons: athletic recovery, muscle pain, increasing energy, helping her eyesight (floaters, eye fatigue), and for healthier sleep. Her husband uses PBMT for issues related to type II diabetes.

They use an LED panel called the Rejuvenator 3 every day.

“I find it very effective,” says Driscoll. “I can especially tell the benefits when I use it on my eyes and brain, and when I use it to sleep deeply.”

Driscoll says she also knows of another person who is using PBMT “to manage and reverse MS.”

Susi Rosinski from Tonawanda, New York, has had similar success with PBMT, which helps her treat both her pain and inflammation. A Medical Qigong Therapist, Rosinski says photobiomodulation also stimulates the production of collagen, which can allow the body to repair tissue and lessens scarring while increasing lymphatic drainage.

“Research has shown that the lymph system can double its ability with the use of light therapy,” says Rosinski. “The venous and arterial diameters can also be increased, which allows for the decrease in edema/swelling. Light therapy also decreases the excitability of nervous tissue, reducing pain.”

Rosinski says she also uses light therapy to help animals heal.

Animal Lovers Love Light Therapy Because They Can

While there is relatively little in the way of scientific verification, there seems to be a movement toward veterinarians using photobiomodulation to help heal the aches and pains of horses, cats and dogs.

According to the September issue of Animal Wellness, light therapy is a safe and gentle healing modality that can help with a number of animal health issues, including:

  • Soft tissue injuries
  • Inflammation
  • Ligament injuries
  • Tendon problems
  • Strains and sprains
  • Swelling
  • Shoulder, neck, hip and back pain
  • Wounds and cuts
  • Arthritis
  • Post-surgery pain
  • General maintenance of healthy joints

Dr. Ron Riegel, DVM, is co-founder of the American Institute of Medical Laser Applications and co-editor of Laser Therapy in Veterinary Medicine – Photobiomodulation. According to Riegel, the pain relief that follows light therapy for veterinary purposes is part of a cascade of events.

“You get a release of nitric acid,” says Riegel. “And when it’s released from the cell, its number one job is vasodilation (dilatation of blood vessels), and its number two job is to act as a neurotransmitter, increasing the ability of nerves to transmit an impulse by normalizing their conductivity.”

Riegel says the therapeutic effects of light therapy are cumulative and that the lasers also release serotonin, which is why this modality appears to work so well on lick granulomas (sores).

“Lick granulomas are basically obsessive-compulsive disorders,” says Riegel.

The dog sits there and licks because he’s bored or anxious. He’s self-medicating because it gives him a serotonin release. A very high percentage of the time, when you treat a lick granuloma with a laser, you’re causing the serotonin release. You’re also stimulating the tissue to heal.

For cat owners, veterinarians report good results in the treatment of chronic kidney failure. This is significant, because 30 percent of cats over the age of 12 will die from this disease.

Typically, light therapy treatments at vet clinics range from $75 to $125 per session, according to Animal Wellness.

A New Kind Of Spotlight On Sports

The American Society For Laser Medicine & Surgery (ASLMS) reports that PBMT has now been adopted as an essential pain management tool by athletic trainers in most Major League sports franchises in the United States, as well as by many Olympic teams.

Trainers claim that elite athletes make comebacks faster after being injured when photobiomodulation therapy is part of the treatment plan. Major League Baseball pitchers, for example, use lasers as part of a normal warm-up routine, and many athletes use them as part of rehabilitation. PBMT is also used to treat the weekend athlete with common sports injuries such as plantar fasciitis, hamstring pulls, and various muscular sprains.

“Yes, I’ve used it and the results were successful,” says strength and conditioning coach Brandon Mentore.

Mentore says he uses an infrared device on the radial artery in a staggered manner during a training session – before, during and after. In combination with other tools, Mentore believes PBMT accelerates recovery time.

Health & wellness expert and personal training Caleb Backe is also sold on PBMT.

Photobiomodulation therapy has the ability to stimulate the cell’s natural healing and pain relief processes,” says Backe. “It also has the potential to reduce scar tissue and acts as an anti-inflammatory.”

Even A Brighter Outlook?

There’s a lot of excitement among researchers – not just about what photobiomodulation therapy can do now – but regarding its potential applications. For example, PBMT is becoming a well-established approach to prevent oral mucositis, a painful inflammation and ulceration that occurs in the mouths of patients undergoing cancer treatment.

Now science wants to know if PBMT can play an active role in cancer treatment. There are reports that this may indeed be the case. In May, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reported that there are two clinical trials showing increased survival in cancer patients who received PBM therapy. And:

“There are also many articles that suggest that light can directly damage the tumor, can potentiate other cancer therapies, and can stimulate the host immune system.”

Taking A Shine To Do It Yourself Home Devices

Light therapy is good – a good number of light therapy devices are not. The manufacture and sale of light therapy devices remains unregulated. So how to recognize a truly useful one is a challenge.

Portland psychologist Jason Luoma recommends light therapy for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). He also offers tips on what to look for in buying a light therapy device.

According to Luoma, price is a pretty good indicator. Luoma says light therapy devices under $150 probably have not been manufactured to the standards used in the research studies and could be ineffective or potentially dangerous for your vision.

“Tested devices are typically 10,000 lux and should say something about being ‘broad spectrum’ and have shielding from harmful UV rays. It’s the UV rays that are put off by fluorescent lights that can harm your eyes.

Luoma says a well manufactured device will also say to use it at a comfortable distance of 12-24 inches. He is adamant about not buying cheap, mass-produced light therapy devices sold at big-box stores.

Thomas RoppThomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest 11 years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.

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