Laser Treatment for Osteoarthritis

Laser therapy was introduced as a non-invasive treatment option for osteoarthritis nearly 30 years ago. Laser therapy, also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT), is a light source that generates pure light of a single wavelength.

Patient receiving low level laser treatment
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The effect produced by laser therapy is not thermal (heat) — instead, it has to do with photochemical reactions in cells. Studies have produced inconsistent results regarding laser therapy for osteoarthritis.

Is There Any Evidence That Laser Therapy Is Effective?

Through the photochemical reactions produced by laser therapy, arthritis symptoms are thought to improve. A study in the August 2000 Journal of Rheumatology compared the outcomes of laser therapy used to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis treated with laser therapy had a 70% reduction in pain compared to the placebo group. There was also a significant improvement in morning stiffness and hand flexibility. However, there was no difference in joint function, range of motion, or joint swelling between the two groups (treatment group and placebo group).

For osteoarthritis patients, there was no effect on pain and insignificant results for joint tenderness, joint mobility, and strength. Basically, studies that were compared for osteoarthritis lacked consistency with regard to wavelength, treatment duration, dosage and site of application.

The Cochrane Review Withdrew Its Report on Laser Therapy

In a review of eight clinical trials dealing with laser therapy, five of the trials favored laser therapy over placebo for at least one outcome (pain, pain during movement, improved knee range of motion, disease activity, and temporomandibular joint pain). Three other trials did not report benefits associated with laser therapy. However, this particular Cochrane Review was withdrawn. The reasons for pulling the review include:

  • Several new studies are claiming positive results and Cochrane must review them.
  • Some errors were reported in the data.

The Bottom Line

If you're considering laser therapy for osteoarthritis, discuss the potential benefits with your healthcare provider. But, you should remember that while there has been some positive data associated with laser therapy — studies have been inconsistent in both format and results.

Future studies are expected to improve the level of consistency between studies. Going forward, researchers are expected to look for potential anti-inflammatory effects that might be related to laser therapy.

1 Source
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  1. Stausholm MB, Naterstad IF, Joensen J, et al. Efficacy of low-level laser therapy on pain and disability in knee osteoarthritis: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo-controlled trials. BMJ Open. 2019;9(10):e031142. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2019-031142

Additional Reading

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer who covers arthritis and chronic illness. She is the author of "The Everything Health Guide to Arthritis."