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 often used in chiropractic offices. It is non-invasive and 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 and whole-body pain. 

Inconsistent Research

Numerous studies have been done on cold laser therapy, with mixed 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, while many trials rated it as effective. 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 consider its effect on your specific condition.

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, medication can be effective.

Medications commonly used for breakthrough pain include:

However, these drugs can come with side effects. Surgery is sometimes an option for severe cases that are caused by a clear structural problem. But surgery has risks and the results aren't always satisfactory.

Cold laser therapy can be effective for joint disease if used at an energy level 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, and when used in combination, the results were better.

Other alternative treatments may help reduce inflammation and joint pain, with a low risk of unwanted side effects.

These 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 and radiculopathy (pinched nerves).

Radiculopathy symptoms include:

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

The symptoms typically radiate down the arm or the leg.

Sometimes the body will reabsorb extruding disc material over the course of about a year. Some people use treatments like cold laser therapy to manage their pain in the meantime.

Other treatments for herniated disc treatment include chiropractic care or epidural steroid injections, which can be combined with each other and with LLLT.

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.

Another study, published in the September 2012 issue of Laser Therapy, found cold laser treatment to be effective for pain that's caused by 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 your pain and talk to your healthcare team about it. They can help guide you in the right direction by providing you with a diagnosis, suggested therapies for your pain, and determining whether there is a possibility that this treatment could help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does cold laser therapy work?

    Cold laser therapy uses low levels of light from a laser to heal tissue. Also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT), the noninvasive treatment appears to inhibit inflammatory activity to relieve pain.

    The treatment isn't actually cold. It gets its name because low levels of light do not produce heat.

  • How long does cold laser treatment last?

    A cold laser therapy session lasts between 3 and 5 minutes. Most people do not experience pain relief from cold laser treatment after the first few session. It can take between eight and 30 sessions to know if it is effective.

  • How often can you have cold laser therapy treatments?

    Cold laser therapy is typically performed at least twice a week and up to four times a week. It can take several treatments before you feel any relief.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jang H, Lee H. Meta-analysis of pain relief effects by laser irradiation on joint areas. Photomed Laser Surg. 2012;30(8):405-417.

  2. Lee YC. Effect and treatment of chronic pain in inflammatory arthritisCurr Rheumatol Rep. 2013;15(1):300.

  3. Saayman L, Hay C, Abrahamse H. Chiropractic manipulative therapy and low-level laser therapy in the management of cervical facet dysfunction: a randomized controlled study. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2011;34(3):153-63.

  4. Childress MA, Becker BA. Nonoperative management of cervical radiculopathy. Am Fam Physician. 2016 May 1;93(9):746-754.

  5. Huang Z, Ma J, Chen J, Shen B, Pei F, Kraus VB. The effectiveness of low-level laser therapy for nonspecific chronic low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Arthritis Res Ther. 2015;17:360.

  6. Takahashi H, Okuni I, Ushigome N, et al. Low level laser therapy for patients with cervical disk herniaLaser Ther. 2012;21(3):193–197. doi:10.5978/islsm.12-OR-10

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.