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Treating Inflammation and Pain with Red and Near Infrared Light Therapy

Millions of Americans experience pain and reduced physical function from inflammation, especially chronic inflammation. This article provides an overview of inflammation: types, causes, symptoms, and treatments. Then we examine clinical research and the potential for treating chronic inflammation with red light therapy, a natural solution that doesn’t come with the distressing side effects of many anti-inflammatory drugs.

An Overview On Inflammation?

What is inflammation? Inflammation is a vital part of the immune system’s response to injury and infection. It is the body’s way of signaling the immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue, as well as defend itself against foreign invaders. You can think of inflammation as your body’s programmed response to danger. It’s one of your immune system’s first actions against infection, germs, irritation, and cell damage.

Causes: There are clear physical causes of inflammation like injuries & wounds, bruises, and burns. Inflammation also occurs in response to biological factors like infection from germs and stress. Chemical irritants, toxins, and alcohol can also trigger inflammation. Your body can become inflamed in response to environmental conditions as well—like poor sleep, poor nutrition, dehydration, and excessive exposure to blue light & radiation (including EMF radiation from devices like cell phones and wireless routers). These environmental factors likely play a role in the development of chronic inflammation.

Signs & symptoms: The five classic signs of inflammation are redness, swelling, heat, sometimes pain, and loss of function. Pain is caused by chemicals like bradykinin and histamine released by your body releases to stimulate nerve endings as a warning of danger. [1] There is also clinical evidence for a link between depression and inflammation, both for depression-triggering inflammation and for inflammation leading to depression. [2]

Acute or chronic? Not all inflammation is bad. Acute inflammation tends to be short-term and localized, meaning it works at the precise place where a problem exists. In a healthy response, inflammation occurs within a few hours, working to clear the pathogen, initiating the healing and repair processes, before gradually subsiding. Chronic inflammation on the other hand can have long-term and whole-body effects. It is typically caused by frequent and persistent acute inflammation, as well as viral infections, autoimmune reactions, and foreign bodies that aren’t removed which produces a steady, low-level of inflammation throughout the body. This type of systemic inflammation can contribute to the development of disease including: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and others. Low levels of inflammation can be triggered by a perceived internal threat, even when there isn’t a disease to fight or an injury to heal, and sometimes this signals the immune system to respond. As a result, white blood cells swarm but have nothing to do and nowhere to go, and they may eventually start attacking internal organs or other healthy tissues and cells.

Inflammation Drugs, Health Risks, & Side Effects

Traditional health practitioners typically treat inflammation with NSAIDs, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These can include lower-risk, over-the-counter varieties like aspirin and ibuprofen that can treat acute pain, but to treat more serious chronic inflammation, patients are often prescribed prescription NSAIDs. Prescription NSAIDs are also known as “Cox-2 Inhibitors.” Unfortunately, prescription NSAIDs have a troubling history and a long list of associated side effects and health risks. They’ve been linked to kidney, bone, hearing and cardiovascular problems.

The risks of NSAIDs are usually greater for people over age 60. Given all of this, it’s no surprise many doctors and patients are looking for more natural inflammation and pain treatments that don’t rely on potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals.

Treating Inflammation with Light Therapy

Red and near infrared light therapy is showing immense potential as a natural treatment for pain and inflammation and an exceptionally effective alternative to traditional NSAIDs.

If you’re not familiar with red light therapy, this article gives a good overview of what it is and how it works. The short version is this: light therapy delivers safe, concentrated wavelengths of natural light to your skin and cells. These red and near infrared wavelengths of light stimulate your cells and reduce oxidative stress, so your body is able to make more usable energy to power itself. This increases function, speeds healing, and lowers inflammation and pain, as demonstrated in numerous peer-reviewed studies. [3]

Light Therapy and Inflammation Treatment: Red light therapy alleviates chronic inflammation by increasing blood flow to the damaged tissues, while increasing the body’s antioxidant defenses. [4]

Dr. Michael Hamblin of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital is one of the world’s leading photomedicine researchers. He’s studied light therapy at length and concluded that one of its most reproducible effects is “an overall reduction in inflammation, which is particularly important for disorders of joints, traumatic injuries, lung disorders and in the brain.” [4]

Dr. Hamblin explains that wavelengths of natural red and near infrared light are “a very mild form of stress that activates protective mechanisms in the cells…for instance, when longer wavelengths or visibly red light hit the skin, it stimulates mitochondria to produce energy more efficiently while boosting production of healing anti-inflammatories and disease-fighting antioxidants.” [4]

Clinical research from around the world has found light therapy to be an effective treatment for reducing inflammation in specific surgical contexts as well:

Post-surgery inflammation and pain relief: A randomized, triple-blind, placebo-controlled trial published in Lasers in Medical Science in 2018 assessed the acute inflammation and pain of patients recovering from hip arthroplasty surgery. Researchers found that patients treated with natural light therapy saw a greater reduction in post-op pain and swelling, concluding that natural light therapy “is effective in decreasing pain intensity and post-surgery inflammation.” [5]

Reduced oral inflammation: Another recent trial assessed light therapy’s ability to reduce inflammation in periodontal cells (in the mouth) in a highly inflammatory environment, which is common with orthodontic and dental surgeries and treatments. Researchers concluded that the study “demonstrated that [light therapy] inhibits inflammation, induced by endotoxins from E. coli and P. gingivalis.” [6]

Muscles, exercise, and soreness: Numerous other trials have analyzed light therapy’s ability to treat muscle soreness and exercise-related inflammation and pain. A 2008 study found natural light had a beneficial effect on the symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness. [7] A 2010 Brazilian study found that people who used light therapy before strenuous exercise eventually experienced less pain and inflammation after workouts. [8]

Laboratory research on mammals: The research mentioned above aligns with previous studies of inflammatory markers in lab rats, which have consistently found that light therapy treatments improve muscle soreness and decrease inflammation. [9]

Health & Fitness Leaders Recommend Light Therapy for Inflammation

The clinical results are very encouraging, demonstrating that natural light can play a major role in the treatment of inflammation and pain, without the dire side effects associated with NSAID medications. In addition, a large number of physicians, as well as health and fitness leaders have spoken about their own personal success treating inflammation and pain red light therapy. Here’s a sampling:

Dr. Sarah Ballantyne: a biophysicist and New York Times best-selling author, Dr. Sarah has spoken about her struggles with joint pain and inflammation from fibromyalgia. After using a joovv light therapy device for a year, she stated:

I owe my current energy level and lack of joint pain to using my Joovv…my own experience matches up with what’s documented in scientific literature. In particular, using Joovv has resulted in improved energy, markedly reduced pain, elevated mood, and I feel & look a lot younger”*

World-renowned trainers: Jorge Cruise is a world-famous trainer and bestselling health and fitness author. He explained that his clients are often prevented from exercising properly because of inflammation and joint pain. So he’s incorporated Joovv light therapy for himself & his clients to help overcome that pain and now he swears by it.

Another world-famous trainer, Ben Greenfield, says light therapy is a game-changer for workouts and recovery, helping competitors overcome the strain and inflammatory pain of strenuous workouts.

The experiences of these renowned trainers and their clients are in line with what the clinical research has concluded about light therapy’s positive effect on soreness and inflammation in muscle tissue.

Additional Natural Remedies For Pain and Inflammation

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Anti-inflammatory diets have become popular in recent years. The recommended foods are typical of a Mediterranean diet and include eating more fish (wild caught not farm raised), fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats; eating moderate amounts of nuts; eating very little red meat; and drinking red wine in moderation. Like the Mediterranean diet, the principles of an anti-inflammatory diet are healthful ones and the approach is nutritionally sound, according to the Mayo Clinic.

An anti-inflammatory diet also means staying away from foods that can promote inflammation. It’s best to minimize the amount of foods you eat that are high in saturated and trans fats, such as red meats, dairy products and foods containing partially hydrogenated oils. In addition, limit sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, such as white flour, white rice and pasta. And cut back on the use of cooking oils and margarines that are high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn, safflower and sunflower oils.

Acupuncture

This traditional Chinese medicine technique may help reduce pain associated with back pain, neck pain, arthritis, headaches, fibromyalgia pain after surgery, according to research. Not everyone who tries acupuncture improves,  but when you look at risks and benefits compared to other methods like NSAIDs, acupuncture comes out on top with minimal risks.

While acupuncture’s cost can be prohibitive for some pain sufferers, it is increasingly covered by health insurance—at least in part—as its benefits have become clearer. Massage is another approach that’s been shown to to relieve chronic lower back pain.

Exercise and mindful movement

From jogging to weightlifting, physical activity is good for you, in part because it helps your body fight inflammation. When you start exercising and moving your muscle cells release a small protein called Interleukin 6, or IL-6, which appears to play an important role in fighting inflammation. IL-6 has several anti-inflammatory effects, including:

  • Lowering levels of a protein called TNF alpha, which itself triggers inflammation in the body.
  • Inhibiting the signaling effects of a protein called interleukin 1 beta, which triggers inflammation that can damage the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

The biggest factor in determining how much IL-6 your muscles release is the length of your workout — the longer your workout, the more IL-6 is released. For example, after a 30-minute workout, IL-6 levels may increase fivefold, but after a marathon, the levels may increase by a factor of 100. IL-6 levels peak around the time you finish a workout, and then rapidly decrease back to pre-exercise levels.[10]

Studies have found that regular exercise increases levels of another protein, called Interleukin-15 (IL-15), in muscle cells. IL-15 appears to help regulate the accumulation of abdominal fat, with higher levels of IL-15 providing protection against abdominal fat buildup in mice, the review said. Since abdominal fat itself is thought to promote inflammation, reducing abdominal fat levels may be another way exercise fights inflammation.[10]

Reduce Stress

If you’re suffering from chronic stress, your body spends too much time in “fight or flight” mode, carried out by the sympathetic nervous system, and not enough time in “rest and digest” mode, facilitated by the parasympathetic nervous system.

When you’re chronically in fight-or-flight mode, being in that “on” state disrupts the body’s stress response system by raising overall cortisol levels and disturbing normal cortisol and melatonin rhythms. Cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory that functions to mobilize glucose reserves for energy and modulate inflammation. Unfortunately prolonged stress leads to hyper physiological levels of cortisol. This alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate both the inflammatory and immune response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to cortisol. When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to constant tissue breakdown and impairment of the immune system. For more on this read, How Stress Affects Your Health.

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