Using Light To Fix Injury - Photobiomodulation for Injured Lifters and Athletes

Photobio-wut?
When you train hard, injuries happen. Whether you're experiencing pain from poor technique, postural habits, or from a contact injury in the throes of gameplay, don't fret! There are plenty of safe and effective treatment options available.

I've suffered from dozens of injuries and also experimented with a myriad of recovery modalities: ultrasound, massage, ART, cryotherapy, and many more. I've had limited success with many of them.

But the one method that I've found to be most effective is photobiomodulation. In my opinion, it's one tool that everyone should use since it has a host of benefits ranging from muscle recovery to skin repair and even decreasing systemic inflammation.

Wait, What The Heck Is That?
Photobiomodulation is the use of near and far infrared light as a means of therapy. It's noninvasive and is free of harmful UV rays, so there are no dangerous side-effects. Thousands of scientific papers have shown that infrared light can be clinically effective in treating a myriad of health conditions ranging from lower back pain (1) to glaucoma (6).

I stumbled upon photobiomodulation by accident. My boss at the time had just gotten hip surgery and he was working with a massage therapist to help him heal faster. She used the laser on his hip several times per week and he was back to his normal training routine in no time.

About two weeks later, I managed to hurt my shoulder pretty badly during a weightlifting meet. I'd been having shoulder pain leading up to the competition, but decided to ignore it. (I'm sure you can all relate to my stubborn athlete's mindset.)

Unsurprisingly, my body threw me a big fat reality check. While warming up for clean and jerks, I felt something pop in the back of my shoulder. My face went ghost-white and I immediately dropped the barbell. My entire left scapula was winging off my rib cage and I couldn't lift my arm past about 90 degrees. I feared the worst.

The next day I reached out to the therapist who was helping my boss to schedule a session. I didn't know anything about infrared laser therapy, but I was willing to try anything to heal my shoulder at that point.

After just one hour of combined massage and laser work with her, I was amazed by how much better I felt: I had a 50% increase in range of motion and a similar improvement in my pain symptoms. A week later I had another session, which restored me to nearly full range of motion with hardly any pain.

So if you're considering it, here's how to reap the benefits of infrared light to recover faster and boost your overall health.

Cellular Repair & Why You Should Care
Near and far infrared light are widely known to stimulate mitochondrial production. Surely you remember hearing about how mitochondria is the "powerhouse of the cell" from high school biology class. Our bodies are constantly repairing damaged cells and creating new ones, but this process slows down as we age or as our health declines.

Infrared light helps to expedite these chemical reactions throughout the body. If you have stubborn injuries that won't seem to go away, this could be the perfect solution to nipping them in the bud once and for all.

Tissue that has less blood flow such as bone, ligaments, and tendons can benefit significantly from infrared therapy. A study done on patients who had osteoarthritis in the knee saw massive improvements from combining exercise and HILT (high-intensity laser therapy) when compared with those who simply did exercises (8).

Another study tested the combination of medicinal herbs and laser therapy for healing of the medial cruciate ligament (MCL). The researchers found that fibril diameter of the ligament was significantly thicker in the groups that received laser treatments (10). ACL and MCL tears are rampant among athletes of all sports, and this procedure could help them return to play much faster.

Collagen production is accelerated in exposure to infrared light, which can help expedite the recovery of scars after surgery. Collagen is a protein found in the skin, hair, nails, and joints. You produce less of it after age 25, so using infrared light can help mitigate this decline.

Whether you have a scar from an ACL tear or a C-section, you may see a reduction in scar tissue after a few sessions with laser therapy. In a 2013 study, 17 participants received either laser therapy or a placebo treatment over the course of 15 sessions. Those who received laser therapy saw improvements in scar appearance and in scar thickness (4).

Infrared Light Lowers Inflammation
You may also experience huge decreases in inflammation with infrared therapy. Oftentimes from rigorous training, athletes will experience aches and inflammation in their joints. While this is common, it can negatively impact your progress in the gym.

One study done on patients who suffer from TMD (temporomandibular joint disorder) saw statistically significant improvements in their levels of chronic pain (3). While this study was done on the jaw, the mechanisms of reducing inflammation can apply to any other joint in the body.

You can even use infrared light to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or blood lactate levels post-exercise. DOMS is a form of inflammation that can cause tremendous discomfort for days on end and thus hinder subsequent training sessions.

A male volleyball team reported dramatic decreases in C-reactive proteins, blood lactate, and creatine kinase levels after intense exercise sessions in players who received laser therapy (9). If you want to recover faster from your workouts, this could be the added advantage your routine is missing.

Tying It All Together
It almost seems too good to be true. And while we're just talking about the laser therapy to speed the healing time of sports injuries and improve performance, there are thousands of papers on its applications for Alzheimer's, eczema, wrinkles, hair growth, seasonal depression, and more.

There are no negative side effects to these treatments, so it's worth a try. If you're feeling hopeless about your injury and you're not sure where else to turn, this may be a worthwhile solution.

You can get red light therapy from a variety of therapists, medical spas, and many chiropractors. Some people even buy a panel of lights for their homes. Just Google around.


References:
Bjordal, J. M., Couppé, C., Chow, R. T., Turner, J., & Ljunggren, E. A. (2003). A systematic review of low level laser therapy with location-specific doses for pain from chronic joint disorders. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy, 49(2), 107-122.
Burkow, L. (2014). The use of near infrared light emitting diodes in treating sports-related injuries: a review. Research.
Fikácková, H., Dostálová, T., Navrátil, L., & Klaschka, J. (2007). Effectiveness of low-level laser therapy in temporomandibular joint disorders: a placebo-controlled study. Photomedicine and laser surgery, 25( 4), 297-303.
Freitas, C. P., Melo, C., Alexandrino, A. M., & Noites, A. (2013). Efficacy of low-level laser therapy on scar tissue. Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy, 15( 3), 171-176.
Holanda, V. M., Chavantes, M. C., Wu, X., & Anders, J. J. (2018). The mechanistic basis for photobiomodulation therapy of neuropathic pain by near infrared laser light. Arquivos Brasileiros de Neurocirurgia: Brazilian Neurosurgery, 37(04), 317-325.
Ivandic, B. T., & Ivandic, T. (2015). Effects of Photobiomodulation Therapy on Patients with Primary Open Angle Glaucoma: A Pilot Study. Photomedicine and laser surgery.
Kahn, F. (2006, February). Low intensity laser therapy: The clinical approach. In Mechanisms for Low-Light Therapy (Vol. 6140, p. 61400F). International Society for Optics and Photonics.
Kheshie, A. R., Alayat, M. S. M., & Ali, M. M. E. (2014). High-intensity versus low-level laser therapy in the treatment of patients with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial. Lasers in medical science, 29(4), 1371-1376.
Leal, E. C. P., Lopes-Martins, R. Á. B., Frigo, L., De Marchi, T., Rossi, R. P., De Godoi, V., ... & de Valls Corsetti, F. (2010). Effects of low-level laser therapy (LLLT) in the development of exercise-induced skeletal muscle fatigue and changes in biochemical markers related to postexercise recovery. journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy, 40( 8), 524-532.
Ng, G. Y., & Fung, D. T. (2008). Combining therapeutic laser and herbal remedy for treating ligament injury: an ultrastructural morphological study. Photomedicine and laser surgery, 26(5), 425-432.