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Can Red Light LED Therapy Help Ease Arthritis Pain?

Far too many people suffer pain from arthritis. Whether the doctor has diagnosed osteoarthritis, psoriatic arthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, patients may have trouble controlling the pain. Some take over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Over the long term, however, these drugs can lead to serious problems. Now scientists are exploring the potential for photobiomodulation to ease joint pain. This may be implemented as laser therapy or as red light LED therapy.

Is Red Light LED Therapy for Real?

Q. My son has been suffering with pain from arthritis for 17 years. He recently had red light LED therapy. It was expensive, but after the treatment he said that he felt better than he had for years. The effect only lasted two days, though.

Is this a real treatment or just a placebo effect? Any research on this would be helpful.

A. Thank you for alerting us to this evolving approach to easing joint pain. Red light LED therapy is more often used in dermatology to treat a variety of skin conditions.

What Do We Know About Photobiomodulation?

We were able to locate a number of studies on photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT). This uses red light LED therapy as well as red and near infrared laser treatments. Although research in this field started more than 20 years ago (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Jan. 1992), scientists still don’t understand exactly how it works (Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, Nov. 16, 2023). The optimal parameters such as wavelength, power and duration of exposure have not yet been established.

One study suggests that PBMT is more effective for arthritis pain when combined with exercise (South African Journal of Sports Medicine, Jan. 1, 2019).  A randomized controlled trial compared recovery from total knee replacement utilizing exercise alone to exercise combined with PBMT. The authors concluded that low-level laser therapy improved pain management and range of motion (Cureus, Dec. 21, 2023). It does appear to be a “real treatment” and not simply a placebo.

Learn More:

Your son might be interested in other nondrug approaches to joint pain. He can learn about these in our eGuide to Alternatives for Arthritis.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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