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Photobiomodulation for Pain

If you compete in a long-form triathlon (Ironman or 70.3), you may experience the anesthetic property of the finish chute. No matter the discomfort or pain you might endure during the race, it all goes away in your first few steps into the finish chute. You might push yourself through great suffering to get there, but you cross that finish line pain-free. Unfortunately, the anesthetic is only temporary. Once you’re away from the cheering, the high fives, and the hugging, you’ll likely feel as sore and depleted as you’ve ever felt in your life.

Understanding Pain

The anesthetic property of the finish chute shows the subjective nature of pain. Pain can vary significantly, not just from individual to individual, but even within the same individual. Pain varies based on your environment, your outlook, and your cultural background. This is what makes it such a difficult subject to research or study: one person’s pain can be another’s discomfort, and as the finish chute shows us, pain that is nearly insufferable under some circumstances can simply evaporate under others.

But the difficulty pain presents as a subject of study has not prevented researchers from trying to understand it. One of the most exciting areas of this research is the effect of photobiomodulation (PBM) on it.

From Mice to Human Patients

A 2017 paper (PDF) reported on a study of pain relief in mice. The researchers injected each mouse in the abdomen with a 1% acetic acid solution (a diluted vinegar). This makes a mouse writhe, and the researchers counted the writhings as a relative measure of their pain. Some of the mice got no treatment for their pain, and some received laser or LED light at various frequencies for various periods of time. The mice that received the light treatments stopped writhing quicker than the untreated ones. Furthermore, the researchers were able to determine effective doses of PBM (wavelength and duration) for mice in pain. It may not be much consolation for the mice who did the experiment, but this study shows that PBM is an effective pain reliever.

A 2015 paper in Arthritis Research and Therapy reviewed seven published trials pitting PBM against placebo for pain. Five of those seven studies (i.e., more than 70%!) found that PBM was significantly better than placebo in alleviating low back pain.

A Usable Hypothesis

So far, the research has not turned up proof sufficiently compelling for your doctor to prescribe PBM sessions for your pain. But there is a clinical trial underway now. The researchers expect to have results in December 2019. Personally, I hope for something definitive, as the study sounds rigorous: “This is a randomized, triple-blinded, placebo-controlled trial, with voluntary patients with chronic non-specific low back pain. One hundred and forty-eight patients will be randomly allocated to two treatment groups: Placebo or PBMT for 4 weeks (3 times per week, total of 12 sessions of 27 minutes each).”

Researchers have begun to try explaining how PBM alleviates pain. But, until we have the results of rigorous clinical trials like the one I just described, the world of medicine will continue to treat pain relief by PBM as a hypothesis. On the other hand, the anesthetic property of the finish chute is also no more than hypothesis. But I can assure you the pain relief in the finish chute is real. So is pain relief by PBM. You don’t need to wait for the results of the clinical trial. You can try PBM on your own pain right now. Book a few sessions at Peak Recovery & Health Center today.