By Dava Stewart
Low level laser therapy (LLLT) is an effective treatment for a number of conditions. It has been used for wound healing, has shown to have analgesic properties, and has been used to help manage pain and inflammation in a number of conditions. One area still being studied is whether LLLT can improve range of motion, and the research is producing mixed results.
Study design and sample size are perennial problems, and both are issues when you look closely at the research regarding LLLT and range of motion (ROM). Many studies are sponsored by manufacturers and produce inherently questionable results. Others are carried out with few participants, which again, produce results that may be less than accurate for the majority of the population.
Another possible reason for the mixed results could be that LLLT involves varying settings. The intensity of the laser, the length of treatments, the number of treatments, and the pulsation of the laser can each impact the outcomes of studies.
For example, one study, published in 2005, investigated LLLT as a therapy for osteoarthritis pain in the hands. The researchers concluded, “Pain relief, morning stiffness, and functional status did not significantly improve for LLLT versus placebo.” However, as one commenter noted, “The conclusion of this study is questionable since only 0.12 J per finger joint was applied. Energy recommendation of the World Association for Laser Therapy for finger arthritis is 4 J, 1-2 points. The discussion also fails to discuss the great differences in dosage and treatment techniques in the references.” 1
Another study compared treating subacromial syndrome, the most common source of shoulder pain, with exercise (stretching and strengthening) plus LLLT and exercise plus sham LLLT. There were 80 participants, with 40 blindly assigned to each group. A blinded doctor measured the results. The authors concluded, “This study indicates that LLLT combined exercise is more effective than exercise therapy alone in relieving pain and in improving the shoulder ROM in patients with subacromial syndrome.”2
The most carefully designed studies show promising results, and LLLT is regularly used in certain medical and physical therapy situations. There are also very few contraindications, and no side effects for LLLT.
1Brosseau L, et al. “Randomized controlled trial on low level laser therapy (LLLT) in the treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) of the hand.” Lasers Surg Med. 2005:36(3);210-219.
2Abrisham SM, et al. “Additive effects of low-level laser therapy with exercise on subacromial syndrome: a randomised, double-blind, controlled trial.” Clin Rheumatol. 2011:30(10);1341-1346.