Self Care

What is Red Light Therapy? Plus, Can it Reduce Pain & Inflammation?

The recovery therapy used by NASA scientists!

By: Lexy Parsons

From acupuncture and herbal medicine to ice baths, infrared saunas, and lymphatic drainage massage, Complementary and Alternative Therapies (CAM) are becoming increasingly popular — particularly when it comes to reducing pain and inflammation. Among the many beneficial wellness treatments, one therapy stands out for its potential benefits in promoting healing and alleviating pain and inflammation — red light therapy. Proven beneficial for skin health and inflammation-related pain, red light therapy has emerged as a promising non-invasive treatment for recovery and overall well-being — it’s even utilized by NASA

Curious to know more? Ahead, discover the science behind red light therapy, including what it is, how it works, and how to include red light therapy into your wellness and recovery regime!

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What is Red Light Therapy?

Also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation, red light therapy is a non-invasive treatment linked to improvements in skin health, tissue repair, inflammation, and overall well-being. By way of action, red light therapy utilizes specific wavelengths of red and near-infrared light to penetrate the skin and stimulate the body on a deep, cellular level. Once absorbed (by enzymes needed for cellular metabolism, like cytochrome C oxidase), these targeted wavelengths work to stimulate mitochondrial function — an essential component in cellular energy production. As a result, the body is better able to optimize cellular processes, modulate inflammatory responses, and increase the production of ATP, our main energy source.

What the Science Says: Can Red Light Therapy Reduce Pain & Inflammation?

The Evolution of Red Light Therapy

Though trending in modern wellness, red light therapy is nothing new. In fact, it was first studied by Danish physician Niels Finsen of Copenhagen, who received a Nobel Prize in 1903 for his groundbreaking discovery that exposure to concentrated red light not only accelerated the healing of sores and scars but also proved effective in treating lupus vulgaris, a type of skin tuberculosis.

Nearly a century later, while working under red and blue lighting conditions, NASA scientists observed accelerated healing of injuries on their hands, suggesting a potential correlation between the lighting environment and improved wound healing. This unexpected discovery presented a possible solution to the challenges of space travel (including muscle atrophy and delayed wound healing experienced by astronauts due to the absence of gravity), prompting extensive research by NASA on light therapy as a potential remedy. 

Based on this research, high-intensity red and near-infrared LEDs appeared to significantly expedite the healing of oxygen-deprived wounds in rats. Not to mention, the LED devices, supplied to U.S. Navy crews for training injury treatment, led to more than a 40 percent greater improvement in musculoskeletal injuries and a 50 percent faster healing time for lacerations in comparison to control groups.

Gaining recognition in modern wellness, more and more research shedding light on the profound benefits of red light for pain and inflammation. Here’s what current science says:

Modern Red Light Therapy Research: The Science-Backed Benefits for Pain & Inflammation

From skin healing to post-workout muscle soreness, research suggests red light therapy has proven beneficial in reducing pain and inflammation for the following conditions:

  • Skin Rejuvenation & Anti-Aging: Promotes collagen production and helps to repair and enhance the appearance of damaged skin
  • Acne Vulgaris: Eases scarring and inflammation related to acne vulgaris for clearer, healthier skin
  • Blood flow: Helps to improve circulation, contributing to improved wound healing and reduced inflammation
  • Muscle Pain & Soreness: Helps to reduce pain of both acute and chronic musculoskeletal conditions
  • Joint Pain & Inflammation: Reduced pain and inflammation related to chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis

How to Add Red Light Therapy to Your Recovery Routine

From purchasing your own red light device to seeking medical-grade treatments, there are so many ways to seamlessly integrate red light therapy into your wellness and recovery regime.

Choose the Right Device or Service

Considering investing in a personal red light therapy device? From handheld devices to larger panels, there are a growing number of options (including budget-friendly choices). Alternatively, you can seek out wellness spas, medical offices, or recovery centers that offer red light therapy sessions. However, remember that not all red light therapy machines are created equal. It’s important to do your own research before investing in a brand or a service to ensure you’re using a high-quality device that emits the appropriate wavelengths for therapeutic effects. 

For at-home use, reputable brands include:

Target Specific Areas

When incorporating red light therapy into your routine, targeting specific areas can optimize its effectiveness for various purposes. Consider your goals, and then develop a targeted approach. Do you want to reduce facial inflammation or acne? Is your goal to speed post-workout muscle pain or soreness? 

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Use a handheld device or facemask to target facial inflammation, pigmentation, or acne
  • To alleviate whole-body joint pain, consider investing in a larger red light panel or getting a red light therapy treatment at a recovery center.
  • To alleviate post-workout muscle soreness, add red light therapy to your post-workout recovery routine. Opt for a wearable device, handheld device, or smaller panel. 
  • For overall wellness, use a full-body red light panel or combine targeted devices — experiment with different session lengths and frequencies to find the optimal balance for your specific needs!

Develop a Routine

To benefit from red light therapy, consistency is key — especially if you’re looking to reduce pain or inflammation. For optimal results, set aside dedicated time for sessions each week to maximize its effects on cellular function, whether it’s daily or a few times a week.

Track Your Progress

Once you’ve secured your routine, track your progress! Monitor how you feel before you begin utilizing this therapy, and keep track of how your body responds to red light therapy over time. Note pain level, skin texture, or any other defining features at the start of your journey, and keep track of how this progresses or changes over time. You could keep a journal, take photos, or simply make a mental note!

Combine Red Light Therapy With Other Recovery Modalities

While red light therapy has proven effective for reducing pain and inflammation, you’ll get the biggest benefit if using it in conjunction with a healthy and balanced lifestyle, including adequate sleep, proper nutrition, hydration, stress management, and regular movement. Plus, red light therapy can complement other recovery strategies such as ice baths, acupuncture, yoga, or meditation — it’s about finding what works best for you and your body and developing a routine that feels best for you. There’s no one best way!

Shedding Light on the Benefits of Red Light Therapy

With so many trending wellness treatments, it’s hard to know what to include. If you’ve been curious to know whether red light therapy is for you, consider the science and if it feels right for you, give it a try. With promising research for pain and inflammation, not to mention mental health and sleep, red light therapy stands as a promising alternative modality that could help to enhance your health and support your wellness journey. However, before making any changes, or if uncertain about the best approach, it’s important to consult with a medical professional or specialist who can provide guidance based on your individual health needs.