How Does Red Light Therapy Work

Red light therapy (RLT) sends low-power red wavelengths of light through your skin. Cells called mitochondria absorb it and generate energy to promote healing.

You’ll find RLT in wellness centers, beauty spas, tanning salons and gyms. It’s best used under the care of a health-care provider who specializes in this treatment.

Increases Collagen Production

Red light therapy is thought to work by targeting the mitochondria in your cells and helping them produce more adenosine triphosphate, or energy. This allows the body to repair damage, regenerate and revitalize itself more effectively.

This may also help wounds heal faster. In one study published in Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, researchers found that using RLT on damaged skin increased the number of fibroblasts—cells that produce collagen, a key component in healing wounds. These cells then helped the skin regenerate itself, leading to a faster healing process and healthier looking skin.

While more research is needed, the results to date suggest that RLT can have many positive effects on your skin and health. The therapy has been shown to treat acne, decrease inflammation, speed up healing after certain procedures and even encourage hair growth. You can get in-office treatments or use an at-home device, but it’s best to talk with a dermatologist before beginning any new skincare routine to ensure you are safe.

The American Academy of Dermatology has a comprehensive page on photobiomodulation (which includes red light therapy) that can educate you more on the potential benefits and risks associated with the treatment. Be aware, however, that many of the studies citing the positive effects of red light therapy used only a small sample size, didn’t include a control group or were conducted on animal tissue instead of human tissue.

Relieves Chronic Pain

Using red and near-infrared light to heal muscles, skin, and tissue is also called photobiomodulation (PBM). It’s been around for more than 50 years, but has recently become more popular due to the wide availability of at-home devices. PBM uses wavelengths in the visible spectrum, between 400 nm (blue) and 1,200 nm (red to near-infrared). It’s considered safe for almost everyone—though it’s not recommended for people with certain medical conditions.

One big reason it’s becoming more widely used is for pain relief. In a small study, for instance, those with rheumatoid arthritis treated with red and infrared light saw a reduction in pain, swelling, and stiffness compared to a control group. Similarly, people with jaw pain from TMD (temporomandibular dysfunction syndrome) experienced less pain, clicking, and tenderness after getting regular red light therapy treatments over 24 weeks.

Red light can also boost collagen production, which helps reduce laxity in aging skin. It’s important to remember, though, that while it might have great benefits for your health or appearance, it won’t necessarily solve all of your issues. The device you use, how often you treat, and your individual skin can all affect the results you see.

“It’s not a magic bullet,” says Ross, who notes that most studies have had small sample sizes and more research is needed to confirm these benefits. That said, “if you have a condition that doesn’t respond to other treatment options, it might be worth trying.”

Prevents Oral Mucositis in Cancer Patients

There are so many aspects of healthcare that feel straight out of the future, MRIs and genetic testing, surgical robots, and now red light therapy. This simple treatment can help with multiple conditions, but it’s also safe and affordable enough to use at home.

During red light therapy, a handheld device is held against the skin or you lay in a pod that emits red and near-infrared light. The treatment is painless for most people. A session can last up to 30 minutes.

The treatment produces a biochemical effect in your cells, strengthening the mitochondria (the powerhouse of your cell), increasing electron transport and ATP levels, which helps rejuvenate, heal, and repair your body, according to the PBM Foundation. It may also help prevent cancer in some cases. In a recent study, researchers used near-infrared light to target cancerous cells in a mouse’s tumor and found that those cells died after exposure, the PBM Foundation reports.

Another study, published in Supportive Care in Cancer, showed that a combination of red and near-infrared light reduced oral mucositis — a painful side effect of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation in cancer patients — and the resulting inflammation, according to the study authors. This therapy is already being used at some hospitals, and could soon be included in clinical practice guidelines for treating this condition.

Reduces Inflammation

Red light therapy has been found to reduce inflammation in the skin and body, which helps speed up wound healing. This is because it stimulates the growth of new blood vessels, encourages collagen synthesis, and lowers production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, but chronic inflammation can cause pain, swelling, and discomfort. Red light therapy may help reduce this inflammation, which can ease the pain and discomfort associated with conditions like arthritis, according to research.

Another benefit of red light therapy is its ability to alleviate inflammation from injuries and certain pain conditions, such as bursitis. This is a painful condition that occurs when the bursa, small fluid-filled sacs that lubricate the outer hip joint, become inflamed. It is often a side effect of high impact sports, like running or weight lifting, and can cause significant discomfort and decreased range of motion.

In one study published in the Journal of Photobiomodulation Therapy, red light therapy was shown to reduce inflammation and increase range of motion in patients with hip bursitis. However, our experts agreed that more research is needed on the effectiveness of this treatment for bursitis.

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