Laser therapy for back pain offers the advantages of not requiring surgical incisions into the body and avoiding the potential adverse effects of long-term medication use.

Some studies have shown that up to 23% of adults experience back pain worldwide, making it a common health complaint. Treatments for the condition include medications, physical activity, and different types of surgery.

Potential benefits include increasing function, reducing pain, and regenerating damaged tissue. A person considering the procedure can help ensure it is the right option for their needs by asking their doctor key questions about the benefits and risks of the procedure.

This article explains how laser therapy can help back pain and what the procedure entails. It will also explain the risks and benefits and what to expect.

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According to a clinical trial that concluded in 2016, low level laser therapy sends messages to the receptors on the cell’s membrane and mitochondrion, which is the cell’s power supply.

These messages eventually reach the DNA, which controls the cell’s function. When cells receive better information, they work better. This also benefits the tissues made up of those cells, including the bone, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.

Low level laser therapy encourages damaged tissues to heal and regenerate by affecting tissue function locally and affecting the body systemically through the blood and acupuncture meridians.

Physiological effects

The physiological effects of low level laser therapy include:

  • increasing cell membrane health
  • encouraging collagen production
  • forming capillaries for healthy circulation
  • supporting immune system activity
  • offering pain-relieving effects due to increased endorphin production
  • improving blood and lymph circulation
  • reducing inflammation due to increased circulation, tissue regeneration, and antioxidant production

Additionally, only abnormally functioning cells and tissues absorb light energy from low level lasers, so they do not affect healthy cells.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says there is low to moderate-quality evidence to suggest that low level laser therapy could help people with chronic low back pain.

Reducing pain

One meta-analysis from 2016 found moderate-quality evidence suggesting that low level laser therapy reduces pain in people with chronic nonspecific low back pain.

The benefit limits to interventions using higher laser doses and in people experiencing back pain for shorter lengths of time.

Pain remission and nerve regulation

Additionally, a small-scale randomized trial from 2016 looked into the effectiveness of different wavelengths of high energy laser therapy — such as 650 nanometers (nm), 810 nm, and a simultaneous emission of 810 nm, 980 nm, and 1064 nm — for treating low back pain.

The group who received 810 nm demonstrated better pain remission, but all wavelengths appeared to improve low back pain. Specifically, the 810-nm wavelength was more effective at supporting nerve regeneration and regulating feelings of pain.

Improving function

The authors of a 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis concluded that both low level and high level laser therapy could help reduce the severity of pain and improve function in people with nonspecific chronic low back pain. However, they did not find enough evidence to support the use of laser acupuncture.

Improving lateral flexion and reducing disability

One double-blind, randomized trial from 2017 compared two different types of laser therapy for chronic low back pain. The researchers found no difference in reducing pain severity between the 850-nm wavelength gallium-aluminum-arsenide laser and the 650-nm wavelength helium-neon laser.

However, they found that combining the two laser types was the most effective at improving lateral flexion of the spine and reducing disability.

It is worth noting that the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says that doctors should only use laser treatment for low back pain in people with severe pain that has not responded to other treatments.

A person must also have scans showing a bulging disc in their spine, but they must not have nerve or disc damage requiring surgery.

The NCCIH says that low level laser therapy has a good safety record when used appropriately, but this does not necessarily mean it is completely safe for everyone.

A person’s health or other special circumstances, such as pregnancy, can affect the risks associated with complementary and integrative therapies. So, it is important to discuss the potential benefits and drawbacks of laser therapy with a doctor.

A person considering laser therapy for back pain may want to ask their doctor the following questions to ensure it is the right treatment for their needs:

  • What does the procedure involve?
  • What are the potential benefits for me?
  • What are my chances of receiving those benefits?
  • Could the procedure make me feel worse?
  • What are the risks? Are the risks minor or serious? How likely are they to happen?
  • What care will I need after the procedure?
  • What happens if something goes wrong?
  • What could happen if I do not have the procedure?
  • What are my alternative options?

Studies suggest that laser therapy for back pain can be effective in the short term, but researchers need more data to confirm its effectiveness over the medium to long term.

For instance, the 2022 meta-analysis mentioned above only found statistically significant benefits of laser therapy up to the point of the 3-month follow-up.

Laser therapy affects the body in a variety of ways to help relieve back pain. These include promoting collagen production, elevating endorphins, and increasing circulation, which reduces inflammation.

The NCCIH says laser therapy for back pain is safe for most people, depending on their state of health and whether they are pregnant. To ensure it is the right procedure for them, a person can ask their doctor about what the procedure involves and the potential risks and benefits.