Shining a Light on Pain

Therapeutic LEDs use light to penetrate deep into tissues and boost the body’s own natural healing processes.

By Anne Underwood

April 14 issue — The marine’s voice had an edge of urgency. As he explained to physical therapist Ben Freeman of Castle Rock, Colorado, in January, his unit was about to ship out to war. But his upper back was so sore that he was hardly in fighting trim.

HE HAD TRIED all the usual remedies—chiropractic, massage, electric stimulation. But he had never seen anything like the eight-inch black plastic disk Freeman had on his shelf. The device, from a company called Light-Force-Therapy, bristled with 192 red and infrared light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Freeman placed the device directly on his back for 15 minutes and then physically manipulated his neck and shoulders for another 15. The Marine came back four days later for more. In just two half-hour sessions, he noticed more improvement than he had in three years of other therapies.
Light can heal. The ancient Greeks knew that. They put sick patients in the sun to aid the curative process. But modern technology has dramatically increased the possibilities, giving us lasers and light- activated drugs. Therapeutic LEDs, the latest addition to the list, use light to penetrate deep into tissues and boost the body’s own natural healing processes. Studies are showing that these new devices can help ease chronic pain, speed wound healing and prevent acute mouth ulcers in certain cancer patients. Even the U.S. Defense Department and NASA are studying LEDs as potential aids to healing injuries on the battlefield and in outer space. And plans are in the works to introduce the technology, patented in at least nine European countries, to the U.K. later this year.
Unlike the LEDs in your digital clock, these devices use just one or two wavelengths of (visible) red or (invisible) infrared —light that have been selected for their therapeutic properties. Dr. Harry Whelan, professor of neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has shown that a specific red wavelength boosts a key energy-producing enzyme in cells. In one published study, he found that LEDs developed for NASA sped wound healing in a U.S. Navy submarine crew by 50 percent. Other researchers have shown that certain infrared wavelengths stimulate the release of nitric oxide in blood vessels, causing them to dilate. This, in turn, increases circulation to a wounded area, improving delivery of oxygen and nutrients and the removal of wastes. That may be why LEDs seem to relieve ailments from muscle strains to shin splints.
LED devices may even help reverse diabetic peripheral neuropathy, or nerve impairment in the limbs—long thought to be irreversible. In a study last year in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, doctors treated 49 subjects with an infrared-only LED device from Anodyne Therapy LLC. After just six 30-minute sessions, 48 of the patients showed improvement. Similarly, says Denver podiatrist Dale H. Carnegie, one of the study’s authors, the Anodyne LED device can help heal diabetic foot ulcers. Ultimately, he says, this could spare patients with diabetes from having limbs amputated.

Newsweek International June 16th Issue

For several hundred dollars, companies like BioScan and Light-Force-Therapy sell LED home units over their Web sites ( and ). Home units are fine for minor aches and sprains. But for serious conditions, consult a doctor or therapist. Anodyne’s Web site ( ) posts recent medical studies on the subject. Let there be light.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.

Light Therapy

Light therapy has been shown in over 40 years of independent research worldwide to deliver powerful therapeutic benefits to living tissues and organisms. Both visible red and infrared light have been shown to effect at least 24 different positive changes at a cellular level. Visible red light, at a wavelength of 660 nanometers (nm – 1 nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter), penetrates tissue to a depth of about 8-10 mm. It is very beneficial in treating problems close to the surface such as wounds, cuts, scars, trigger and acupuncture points and is particularly effective in treating infections. Infrared light (904nm) penetrates to a depth of about 30-40 mm which makes it more effective for bones, joints, deep muscle, etc.

The diverse tissue and cell types in the body all have their own unique light absorption characteristics; that is, they will only absorb light at specific wavelengths and not at others. For example, skin layers, because of their high blood and water content, absorb red light very readily, while calcium and phosphorus absorb light of a different wavelength. Although both red and infrared wavelengths penetrate to different depths and affect tissues differently, their therapeutic effects are similar.

Depth of penetration is defined as the depth at which 60% of the light is absorbed by the tissue, while 40% of the light will continue to be absorbed in a manner that is less fully understood. Treating points with Light can have a dramatic effect on remote and internal areas of the body through the stimulation of nerves, acupuncture and trigger points that perform a function not unlike transmission cables.

At this time, research has shown no side effects from this form of therapy. Occasionally, one may experience an increase in pain or discomfort for a short period of time after treating chronic conditions. This occurs as the body reestablishes new equilibrium points following treatment. It is a phenomenon that may occur as part of the normal process of recovery.

Shining a Light on Pain