Reducing inflammation eases pain gets you mobile again
About three weeks ago, my shoulder suddenly locked up while I was brushing my hair. I was tremendously painful, so I researched all the ways that I might get it moving again. One way that was new to me was Red Light Therapy.
It seems to have helped a lot. It might help you if you have inflamed or injured muscles, tendons or joints - here's what I found out.
There are several different light therapies, including:
Reduce joint inflammation
My experience is with red and near-infrared light therapy (self-administered). Near-infrared light has gained increased attention for its ability to activate anti-inflammatory processes and is now widely used in veterinary medicine to treat sprains, bone fractures, and to speed the healing of wounds.
A shoulder that jams becomes aggravated, and is either already inflamed or will become inflamed. In my Googling, I came across endoscopic images of an inflamed shoulder compared to a healthy shoulder. The inflamed shoulder was painful just to look at! My immediate thought was how to reduce the inflammation.
If mechanical damage from inflammation impinges movement, then all attempts at mobility carry the risk of causing more damage and further aggravating the inflammation. Although I hate tablets, I first reached for the ibuprofen (I still take one pill each morning and night), and then looked for what other treatments might reduce the inflammation.
It is not until relatively recently that red light and infrared therapy has become part of the treatment regime to improve wound healing and to reduce the pain caused by arthritis.
So what is infrared and near-infrared light?
Infrared light represents a broad spectrum of light with wavelengths from 700 nm to 1 million nm (1,000 microns).
At its shortest wavelengths (referred to as near-infrared), it merges with the red spectrum of visible light. At the longest end (referred to as far-infrared, which is the longest wavelength), it blends into the range of microwaves. Here's how it works:
How does red light therapy work?
Infrared light is thought to work by producing a biochemical effect in cells that strengthen the mitochondria. By increasing the function of the mitochondria using light energy, a cell can make more metabolic energy (ATP).
With more energy, cells can function more efficiently, rejuvenate themselves, and repair damage. This process results in beneficial therapeutic outcomes including but not limited to the alleviation of pain or inflammation, regulation of the immune response, and promotion of wound healing and tissue regeneration.
Intra-cellular water molecules are also activated by infrared light, thereby enhancing metabolic exchange and influencing the ion transporter systems found in cellular membranes. This exchange is part of the cellular repair metabolism stimulated by the effect of light.
Infrared light can induce neural stimulation effects as well as promoting a wide range of therapeutic benefits related to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
Knowing the various wavelengths, and what they treat
Skin and low penetration
Infrared light at a wavelength of 630-660nm is ideal for penetrating skin cells and sebaceous glands, yielding benefits for skin texture and tone, smoothing fine wrinkles, promoting collagen production and generally rejuvenating the appearance of skin.
In fact, light-induced free radical formation in human skin has been investigated in detail, demonstrating that red light with 620 and 670 nm wavelengths increases the generation of fibroblasts. These are responsible for collagen production in wound healing, skin remodelling, and tissue repair.
Infrared light therapy is different from laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) therapies because it doesn't cause damage to the skin surface. Laser and pulsed light therapies work by causing controlled damage to the outer layer of the skin, which then induces tissue repair.
630-660nm infrared light therapy bypasses this harsh step by directly stimulating the regeneration of the skin through the stimulation of subcutaneous tissue roughly 5 millimetres below the skin's surface.
Near-infrared light with a wavelength between 730nm-850nm penetrate deeper into the tissue to deliver energy to the body’s cells, and through bone, to assist with healing deep wounds, muscle aches, joint pain and nerve injury.
Near-infrared light with a wavelength between 810nm to 1000nm penetrates even deeper into our tissues and can pass through bone to assist with healing deep wounds, muscle aches, nerve injury or joint pain in the hard-to-reach joints and ligaments such as in the shoulder.
The latter chronic problems are mostly treated with long-range near-infrared light.
How safe is infrared therapy?
If you are like me, you might be wondering about the dangers. How about skin cancer, can it hurt our eyes?
It is considered that infrared therapy is safe and effective, without adverse side effects, and is used even for infants in the neonatal intensive care.
Here is what WebMD says, "Red light therapy is generally considered safe, even though researchers aren't exactly sure how and why it works. And there are no set rules on how much light to use. Too much light may damage skin tissue, but too little might not work as well".
And from the Mayo Clinic, "no adverse effects have been reported with infrared saunas".
Red and near-infrared lights are not those used in suntan salons. They are used in saunas, for their heat. A few sauna brands are making far-infrared saunas that also add near-infrared light into their sauna. This allows you to get all the benefits of near-infrared light discussed above, while also getting the benefits of the sauna heat (sweating, detoxification etc.).
Eye safety - infrared used for eye health and repair
Concerning eye safety, infrared light is generally considered safe for our eyes. The typical human eye responds to wavelengths 400nm to 700nm; therefore, the light from the infrared treatment lights is almost entirely invisible.
And, there are benefits for your eyes, according to various research:
To be on the ultra-cautious side, you might want to avoid looking directly at the lights or wear eye protection.
How to apply infrared light
As noted in the WebMD quote above, how much now little light to use varies considerably, especially because of the extensive range of lights available - different frequencies and different power.
The general recommendations are these:
I have been treating my shoulder every day up to 10 times a day, in different places.
The real advice here is to follow the supplier's recommendations.
You will find smaller lights for about $40 on Amazon, and larger ones for about $80. If you have shoulder or joint pain, then this is a small investment to experient and possibly be able to regain mobility.
My wife developed tennis elbow from painting the kitchen. With the infrared treatment she was amazed by how much the pain had reduced after a couple of days.
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