Cold Laser Therapy for Treating Back Pain

How low levels of light can ease your pain

Cold laser therapy is a treatment that uses low levels of light from a laser to stimulate healing. It's often used to treat back pain. The treatment is referred to as "cold" because the intensity is low enough not to generate heat; it doesn't actually cool your tissues, though.

Back Problems Treated With Cold Laser Therapy

Doctor Administering Cold Laser Therapy Treatment to Female Pati
BanksPhotos / Getty Images

Cold laser therapy is often called low-level laser therapy, or LLLT. It's been around as a pain relief treatment for over 30 years. This approach is popular in chiropractic offices in particular, perhaps because it’s a non-invasive therapy that seems to get good results for people.

Cold laser therapy is approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome but not for other common musculoskeletal maladies. 

Inconsistent Research

Numerous studies have been done on cold laser therapy, some with good results and some with not so good results. Because of the inconsistency, it’s still considered a “controversial” treatment. A 2012 meta-analysis found the treatment to be ineffective in a significant number of clinical trials. However, it found about as many that rated it as effective and the authors concluded that the treatment has merit when it comes to pain relief.

To decide whether this treatment is one you'd like to try, it's important to look at the research on your specific diagnosis.

Cold Laser Therapy for Facet Joints

Facet joint

1Photodiva / Getty Images

Spinal and other joints can become inflamed due to injury or flare-ups of chronic conditions. Generally in these cases, the first thing a doctor suggests for this is some type of medication, such as:

However, these drugs can come with side effects, which can turn people away from them. Surgery is sometimes an option, as well, but that comes with its own risks and the results aren't always satisfactory, according to the 2012 meta-analysis mentioned above.

That paper also stated that cold laser therapy can be effective for joint disease if the energy level is one that inhibits inflammatory activity in the joint capsule.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapies compared spinal manipulative therapy with low-level laser therapy for people with facet joint pain in their necks. The researchers found that both types of treatments were helpful, but when used in combination, the results were even better.

Other alternative treatments that may help reduce inflammation and joint pain with a low risk of unwanted side effects include:

  • Exercise
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Acupuncture
  • Laser acupuncture

Low Level Laser Therapy for Herniated Disc Pain

Herniated disc

Pasieka / Getty Images

A herniated disc can cause significant pain as well as radiculopathy (pinched nerves.) Radiculopathy symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Weakness
  • Numbness
  • Electrical sensations (shock, burning, pins and needles, etc.)

The symptoms typically radiate down one limb. Many people choose surgery to treat it, particularly if six weeks of physical therapy haven't relieved pain adequately. However, it’s well known that your body will reabsorb extruding disc material over the course of about a year. Based on this, some people opt to wait it out and use treatments like cold laser therapy to manage their pain in the meantime.

Other treatments for herniated disc include chiropractic and/or epidural steroid injections, often in combination with each other as well as LLLT.

Research has put out less evidence for LLLT as a herniated disc treatment than for facet joint pain. In a general review on cold laser therapy, the Cochrane Back and Neck Group concluded that although no side effects were reported, they couldn't find enough evidence that this treatment works for non-specific low back pain to recommend it.

Meanwhile, an article published in Dynamic Chiropractic criticized many of the well-respected reviews, including the Cochrane paper, saying that while they call for more research on cold laser therapy for back pain, they don’t specify at exactly what point the therapy will have proven itself.

Another study, published in the September 2012 issue of Laser Therapy, found cold laser treatment to be effective for pain due to herniation of a cervical disc that's related to spondylosis. This study also found that posture education was key to retaining the benefits of LLLT long-term.

A Word From Verywell

To decide whether cold laser therapy is right for treating your back pain, it's important to look at the source of the pain and talk to your health-care team about it. They can help guide you in the right direction.

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7 Sources
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