Seeing red may be just what the doctor ordered. If the color red can put your senses into overdrive, imagine what red light penetrating your body could induce? Red light therapy (RLT), which has much in common with other forms of phototherapy, is a controversial technique that uses red light wavelengths to primarily treat skin conditions.
In recent years, new applications for this fast-growing technology have emerged, including hair growth, cancer, inflammation and even depression. While the possibilities are exciting, for now the bulk of the research is limited to the use of RLT—which has anti-bacterial benefits—for treating skin conditions such as acne and redness.
What is red light therapy?
Although how RLT works is still considered an “experimental therapy,” the idea is emitting red, low-light wavelengths through the skin boosts blood flow and naturally jump-starts the process of tissue recovery and cellular rejuvenation. There are many different versions of RLT, ranging from the red-light beds found at salons to improve skin complexion and reduce wrinkles, to RLT found in a medical setting targeted for psoriasis and wound healing. The upside of RLT is that it’s safe and has minimal side effects; the jury is still out on how effective it is for anything more than skin deep.
What are some red light therapy benefits?
There is some science that supports RLT’s ability to heal aggravated skin. By stimulating a biochemical effect in cells that strengthens the mitochondria, red light therapy enhances a cell’s ability to repair damage. Red light is thought to penetrate deeper than blue light and thus can be particularly relevant for inflammation.
What conditions can it help?
There are several areas of promise for deploying RLT. Here are a few of the most intriguing.
Similar to laser therapy, RLT has been shown to positively affect skin cells through kickstarting the skin to get busy with needed repairs. But unlike laser therapy, RLT does not cause intentional damage to the epidermis by triggering inflammation. A 2014 study published in Photomedicine and Laser Surgery demonstrated RLT’s ability to have a measurable impact on anti-aging skin rejuvenation and increased collagen.
Cellular rejuvenation and increased blood flow, both part of RLT’s wheelhouse, are two key aspects of improving joint and tissue health. A 2005 study found that RLT could be considered for short-term treatment for relief of pain and morning stiffness for treating rheumatoid arthritis, particularly since it has few side-effects.
In 2011, NASA did research that showed that red light technology in the form of near infrared diode devices (called High Emissivity Aluminiferous Luminescent Substrate, or HEALS) could aid in the healing of human wounds, burns, diabetic skin ulcers and oral mucositis (the harsh side effects of chemotherapy on the digestive tract). Lead researcher said “the HEALS device was well tolerated with no adverse effects to our bone marrow and stem cell transplant patients.”
Finding RLT near you
Although more research is still needed, depending on the condition, you can speak with your dermatologist, oncologist, orthopedist, rheumatologist or neurologist about whether RLT is an option. If it’s not available in their practice, your primary care doctor, or a chiropractor, may be able to give you a referral.