Photobiomodulation (PBM) therapy uses photon energy from light within a specific wavelength range to stimulate biological responses within the body.
Clinical studies as well as anecdotal evidence have shown that there are many benefits of PBM. These include speeding up wound healing, including chronic wounds, reducing pain and inflammation, and improving skin condition.
PBM treatments are painless, treatment times are short and they do not interfere with other medications making them ideal for patients with a huge variety of conditions. Medical devices that deliver light therapy are also available for home use, making PBM therapy a viable option for people with long term chronic conditions or those that regularly experience soft tissue injuries and muscle damage such as athletes.
PBM therapy has been FDA approved for pain relief and there is currently significant research being undertaken to determine situations where PBM can be used in place of potentially harmful or addictive medications for pain management.
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Photobiomodulation Therapy or Low-Level Laser Light Therapy?
You may have heard the term low-level laser light therapy or low-level laser therapy (LLLT) used to describe the use of red light and near-infrared light therapeutically to promote healing. So is this the same thing as photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT)?
Essentially yes. When it was first discovered that applications of light could have therapeutic outcomes it was through the use of a low power or cold laser. However, in more recent years it has been consistently found that the same beneficial effects could be obtained using light emitting diodes (LEDs) providing the wavelength of light and power density are within the required range. Thus it was not the light source that was of primary importance but the properties of the light itself. It was also decided that low level was too subjective a term.
Using the term Photobiomodulation points to the fact that biological systems can be modulated by the application of light energy whether that is from a low-level laser, light emitting diode or other source of light.
Therefore if researching low level laser therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation therapy, you are essentially researching the same thing.
How Does Photobiomodulation Work?
Until fairly recently, little had been understood of the mechanisms of action by which photobiomodulation (PBM) works. This meant that, while low level laser therapy was used in a number of fields with positive and measurable results, there had been little consistency in treatment parameters or a clear understanding of dose response.
Studies by Tiina Karu from Russia and Wong-Riley et al in Wisconsin were the first to suggest and confirm the PBM mechanism effect on the mitochondrial electron transport chain. Photons from the red and near infrared light interact with an enzyme called Cytochrome C Oxidase (CCO) located in the cell’s mitochondria.
This has a number of effects. When cells are stressed they produce more nitric oxide (NO) which competes with oxygen; binding with COO this displaces oxygen and reduces the mitochondria capacity to produce Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). Therefore PBMT increases the production of ATP which is the cells primary energy source for many important biological functions including healing and regeneration.
PBMT also modulates the synthesis of reactive oxygen species (ROS) , a free radical that reacts easily with other molecules. A build up of ROS can cause damage to DNA, RNA, proteins and lipids. Too many ROS can even cause cell death.
Essentially the effect of PBMT is to reduce oxidative stress and increase cellular energy. Oxidative stress is generally accepted as the underlying cause of many diseases including degenerative conditions. It also plays a part in pain, inflammation and even ageing. By reducing oxidative stress and increasing ATP production you are promoting the body’s ability to self heal, which is why PBMT has such a wide range of applications and with the right treatment protocols has been seen to be effective in treating so many different conditions.
What Does Photobiomodulation Therapy Treat?
Because of the way PBM devices work to deliver light energy to damaged cells, improving their ability to function normally, and increasing their natural ability to heal, PBMT can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions from ankle or neck pain right through to traumatic brain injury.
One of the most noticeable effects of PBMT is that it reduces inflammation. Thus, it is commonly used to treat many inflammatory conditions such as plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, carpal tunnel, arthritis, sciatica and tennis/golfers elbow, as well as neck, back, shoulder, hip and knee pain. In the case of skeletal muscle pain and inflammation PBMT may be used alongside physical therapy to speed up the healing process.
PBMT is also used in the treatment of oral mucositis, which is a common side effect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy used to treat cancer. Laser light therapy is also known to have anti-aging effects as it promotes cell rejuvenation. And it has been shown to aid in hair growth and scalp rejuvenation.
More recently studies have been carried out to look at the possible use of PBMT in the treatment of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s as well as depression and anxiety. The scope of transcranial photobiomodulation is as yet unknown but positive results are being seen due to the way that PBMT supports the body’s natural healing and regeneration process.
The Effectiveness of Photobiomodulation Therapy
The effectiveness of photobiomodulation treatment depends on a number of factors including the quality of the medical device being used and the knowledge of the medical practitioner.
In order for PBMT to be effective; wavelength, power and treatment times must be determined so that damaged tissue receives the threshold quantity of photons required to have a positive therapeutic effect. If this threshold level is not reached then treatment will have little or no effect on healing.
What Are The Risks of Photobiomodulation Therapy?
Generally the benefits of PBM far outweigh any risk. It is recommended that Laser light should not be used near the eyes without the use of protective goggles, should not be used over a pacemaker, and care should be taken to ensure wavelength and power levels are properly chosen for the treatment type.