Light Therapy for Back Pain

Red and infrared light therapy: the remarkable treatment for back pain 

Most people put their backs through a lot every day! Standing, bending, slouching on the lounge, carrying heavy loads, carrying handbags and children. It's easy to not think about the health of the back until back pain comes along. Most people will experience this type of pain in their lifetime so it is good to be prepared.

Back pain is a fairly general term for something with many causes and symptoms. It can range from a simple muscle ache to shooting, burning or stabbing sensations which can be crippling [1]. The pain may radiate down the leg or be worse when bending, twisting, lifting, standing or walking [1]. 

Anyone can develop back pain, even children and teens [1]. Back pain is more common with age though [1]. It becomes more common with inactivity because the muscles in the back and abdomen become weak [1]. This can also lead to excess body weight which puts extra stress on the back. Another risk factor is using the back instead of the legs when lifting as it puts a strain [1].

What is difficult about back pain is that very often there won't be any sign of it on an xray or MRI. This makes it difficult to diagnose. It also leaves people feeling hopeless and unheard, questioning whether their doctor or others won't believe their pain. 

Here are some tips to prevent lower back pain:

* Exercise – keeping the back strong is important for preventing and also reducing back pain [1]. Swimming and walking are low impact options that are effective. Speaking to a doctor before starting new exercise is important.

* Develop back and abdominal strength and flexibility – Again, if there is an injury, it is important to speak to a professional before starting new exercises. Having strong muscles which have flexibility will support the structures which are struggling to help reduce the pain [1]. 

* Maintain a healthy body weight – extra weight means extra impact on the back [1].

* Avoid movements that strain or twist the back – learn how to lift weight properly [1]. It is important to develop an awareness of how your back is moving. Use the legs to support lifting rather than counting on the back. Share the load with another person and keep the weight close to the body. 

* Stand smart - Don't slouch and maintain a neutral pelvic position. When standing for a long time, place one foot on a low footstool to take some of the pressure from lower back and alternate the feet periodically [1]. 

* Sit smart - Chairs should have good lower back support, armrests and a swivel base ideally [1].  The normal curve of the back can be maintained by placing a pillow or rolled towel between the back and the chair. The knees should be at high level [1]. The ergonomics of the chair and the desk should be considered. While sitting, there should be no straining or slouching. 

How to ease back pain

* Most back pain gradually improves with home treatment and self-care, within a few weeks.

* Rest is usually best with an acute injury but resting for too long can make the injury worse by allowing the back to weaken [1]. Gentle movement will often be helpful once the acute injury has settled.

* Ice can be used for acute injuries. Warmth will most likely be better for chronic injuries. 

* Topical or oral anti-inflammatories are a common treatment

* Contact a doctor if the pain lasts more than 2 weeks, is severe, causes sensation changes or if there is also unexplained weight loss [1].

How does infrared and red light therapy help back pain?

Chronic generalised back pain – Studies show that infrared light can reduce chronic back pain by 50% in as little as 6 weeks [2]. This study found it to be safe with no adverse effects.

Muscle or ligament strain – Lifting heavy items or or sudden awkward movements can strain the muscles and spinal ligaments of the back. For people who don't have a strong back, constant strain can cause painful muscle spasms. Multiple studies show that both red and infrared light promotes organization, aggregation, and alignment of the collagen fibres in ligaments contributing to a more effective tissue repair and a significant reduction in inflammation [3]. Reduced inflammation results in reduced pain!

Bulging or ruptured disks – Between the bones (vertebrae) in the spine there are disks which act as a cushion. The disk can bulge or rupture which puts press on a nerve. The presence of these ruptured disks may or may not result in pain but are usually discovered when the spine is x-rayed. Infrared and red light will probably not repair the disk damage but studies show that it does reduce pain levels and promotes improved spinal joint mobility [5]. The study found that the best benefit will occur when it is combined with postural training.

Arthritis - Osteoarthritis can occur in the spine. This inflammation leads to pain and weakness in the bone. It can also lead to a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord, a condition called spinal stenosis. Studies show that infrared light can improve pain levels by 50% without any side effects in a non-invasive and easy way when suffering from arthritis pain [4]. 

Osteoporosis – When the bones of the spine become weak, they are more prone to fractures. This can cause a great deal of pain and is difficult to heal. Infrared treatment has been shown to increase the strength of bone with osteoporosis [5]. It was found in the study  that these bones when treated could tolerate much more stress before breaking [5]. This means that the bones are much less likely to break!


[1] Mayo Clinic Staff, Back Pain, The Mayo Clinic, August, 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20369906

[2] Gale G.D., Rothbart P.J., Li Y., Infrared therapy for chronic low back pain: a randomized, controlled trial, Pain Research and Management journal, Autumn, 2006, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2539004/

[3] Nascimento L.D.E.S., Nascimento K.F.E.S., Pessoa D.R., Nicolau R.A., Effects of Therapy with Light Emitting Diode (LED) in the Calcaneal Tendon Lesions of Rats: A Literature Review, Scientific World Journal, February, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6377949/?report=classic

[4] Fredrikus G J Oosterveld et. al., Infrared sauna in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, Journal of American Geriatrics Society Publication, January, 2009, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1727843/

[5] Takahashi H., Okuni .I, Ushigome N., et al. Low level laser therapy for patients with cervical disk hernia, Laser Therapy Journal, September, 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3882355/

[6] Bayat M., Fridoni M.., Nejati H, Mostafavinia A, Salimi M., et.al., An evaluation of the effect of pulsed wave low-level laser therapy on the biomechanical properties of the vertebral body in two experimental osteoporosis rat models, Lasers in Medical Science Journal, February, 2016, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26719056/

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