What is Laser Therapy for Healing?
Class IV laser devices use laser diodes that are the “engine” of the products. These diodes determine the power level and the wavelength of the light that’s emitted. Recently, new technological developments have resulted in advanced lasers that are high-power, multi- wavelength devices that include red (635nm) and infrared (810nm, 980nm and 1064nm) wavelengths.
A key difference that makes this treatment better than other therapeutic modalities is photobiomodulation provides energy to cells that causes a series of chemical changes, resulting in the body essentially healing itself.
The Photon (light) energy is able to effectively penetrate the skin and underlying structures, accelerating the body’s recovery process. This photochemical mechanism of action triggers a cascade of cellular actions that include:
- Stimulation of ATP
- Stimulation of respiratory chain
- Increased DNA and RNA synthesis
- Enhanced collagen synthesis
- Increased levels of beta-endorphins and serotonin
FDA Classification as Medical Devices
Class 4 laser therapy is most often administered in a healthcare or medical professional office. Since they are high power devices, class IV lasers have consistently been shown to be clinically effective. They are classified as “Class II medical devices,” another reason they are different than other types of lasers.
What does research tell us about potential Class IV laser therapy benefits? Some of the most popular applications for this type of laser treatment are:
1. Can Reduce Inflammation, Aches and Pains
Intended uses of Class IV laser devices include:
- Promoting relaxation of muscles and providing relief from muscle spasms
- Reducing minor joint aches, pain and stiffness
- Temporarily decreasing arthritis symptoms
- Helping to increase blood circulation
A recent review of published studies has found that photobiomodulation treatments appear to be “effective, safe treatments in a variety of conditions,” when devices were used for indications “including pain, cognitive dysfunction, wound healing, diabetic macular edema, and postprocedural side effects.”
Class IV laser treatments are unique because they don’t rely on heat to dull pain and boost blood flow. Their mechanism of action is photochemical, meaning that light energy causes chemical reactions inside cells that help to reduce inflammation and pain. This is a key, distinguishing factor that sets these treatments apart from other approaches.
Class 4 lasers are also now being recognized as optimal devices for reaching deep tissues that are tied to pain. Higher doses of light and higher output are needed to deliver appropriate doses of energy, due to the large portion of light that is absorbed, reflected or scattered at the skin’s surface. Less powerful lasers may not work if they cannot penetrate deep enough to provide any stimulating effect.
Other considerations in the overall depth of penetration and success of treatment include specific wavelengths and how they interact with the skin. Some light is absorbed more at the surface with darker skin or hair color than another wavelength. Additional features of a medical laser can include continuous wave or pulsing operations that also assist in achieving better results.
2. May Help with Recovery from Acute and Chronic Injuries
Using Class IV laser therapy for overcoming both acute and chronic injuries, such as tendonitis or damage to the knees, are among the most common applications. Not only do treatments address damaged tissues in specific areas of the body (knees, shoulders, back, etc.), but they also affect related issues. Overcompensation in some muscles, back pain or poor posture tied to overuse and inflammation may be improved.
Treatments have been shown to provide relief and boost recovery by reducing pain and inflammation as well as stimulating nerve regeneration, muscle relaxation and immune system response.
3. Used to Treat Skin Conditions Including Wounds and Scars
Emerging research, in both human and veterinary applications, suggests that photobiomodulation can lead to significant stimulation of healing in many types of wounds, burns and scars. Therapy lasers are used on a regular basis for managing wounds in the veterinary market (feline, canine and equine).
However, lasers are not currently cleared by the FDA specifically for wound therapy in humans. A physician may use a therapy laser for wound care but this would be considered off-label usage. It is anticipated that these applications will be become more prevalent as new studies are published and the FDA grants specific clearance.
Additional post-surgery applications with therapy lasers are emerging as a viable treatment to reduce infections and induce faster healing times, by up to 50 percent, for surgical incision sites.
4. May Help Treat Neuropathy
Therapy lasers are increasingly being used as an effective treatment for neuropathy and there are a number of clinical studies indicating positive outcomes. While this application is not yet cleared by the FDA, a physician may promote the use of a therapy laser for “treating the symptoms associated with neuropathy.”
Currently, podiatrists and chiropractors use therapy lasers primarily to treat neuropathy of the feet.
Since the first Class III lasers were cleared by the FDA in 2002 and the first Class IV lasers in 2003, the majority of treatments were performed in a medical office and most often by a chiropractor. With the newer models of high power or high intensity Class IV therapy lasers, treatments are now available from a growing number of medical professionals that include physical therapists, athletic trainers, podiatrists and medical doctors (MD and DO).
Some companies in the laser therapy business have been selling lasers on the internet for home use, often touting the same results as devices used in a medical office. These lasers are typically Class I, II, III or LED products and will have little or no therapy benefits due to their low power.
It is important to know that there may be a “Placebo” effect when using any medical laser or LED device. This means that a person may use it for the first time and perceive a benefit, but with repeated use there is no more benefit and no consistent clinical outcomes.
Many companies selling home-use lasers are also not registered with the FDA and have products that may be unsafe to use in addition to nominal or zero results. When in doubt about buying a product for home use, research the FDA website and also consult with a medical professional.
Both under-dosing and under-treating with lasers can result in less response and improvements. A powerful product like a Class IV laser is essential for providing the most benefits.
Although Class IV therapy lasers are most often administered in medical settings, they can be acquired for home use, too. Individuals that purchase Class IV lasers often choose this for financial reasons if they have a condition that may require ongoing treatments, or for usage reasons if they do not live near a medical office with a suitable device. Professional athletes may obtain a Class 4 laser to facilitate access to treatments during travel.
However, it’s very important that laser treatments be administered by someone, such as a family member or friend, following proper instructions and with the use of eye safety goggles. If being used at home, the environment should always be secure and free from potential distractions.