I can’t discuss photobiomodulation for chronic pain without first considering just what pain is. Unfortunately, pain is elusive, subjective, and nearly impossible to measure. If you suffer from chronic pain, or are just interested in it, I recommend PainScience.com. It is the site of science journalist Paul Ingraham, who is committed to making it comprehensive, well balanced, and biased toward science.
Pain is Weird
I copied this gem from his article, “Pain is Weird.”
The brain makes pain. Pain is 100% Brain Made®, like everything else in life. Threat signals from “insulted” tissues are only one factor of many that the brain considers before creating an experience of pain. The brain often even over-protectively exaggerates pain, sometimes sounding alarms so persistently false that it can become a much bigger problem than whatever caused the alarm in the first place: “sensitization.”
A lot of brains are out there manufacturing pain. A study based on the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) determined that 25 million U.S. adults had daily chronic pain. Another 23 million reported severe pain.
Pain Depends on Race, Age, Gender, & Culture
One of the more eye-opening parts of the NHIS study noted how variable its effects are. According to the American Pain Society, “The findings also showed that half of individuals with the most severe pain still rated their overall health as good or better, and there were associations between pain severity and race, ethnicity, language preference, gender, and age. Women, older individuals, and non-Hispanics were more likely to report any pain, but Asians less likely. Also, the study showed the impact of gender on pain is influenced by race and ethnicity.”
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence about PBM’s usefulness in pain management. My earlier blog posts about PBM for pain tended so cite mouse studies. But the human studies have begun to appear here and there. And the clinical trials seem to be springing up (see here and here).
Photobiomodulation for Chronic Pain
A 2015 paper in Arthritis Research and Therapy reviewed seven published trials of PBM. Five of those seven studies (i.e., more than 70%!) found that PBM was significantly better than placebo in alleviating low back pain.
Mainstream sites still don’t usually suggest PBM for pain. In searching one of my favorite healthcare sites, Mayo Clinic, I did not come up with a single citation for “photobiomodulation.”
So the conservative resources (which probably include your doctor) do not make unqualified recommendations of PBM for chronic pain management. On the other hand, PBM has significant advantages over most other pain relief strategies. PBM offers no risk and no documented side effects. It doesn’t even take very long. Book a series of PBM sessions for your chronic pain. If you think shining a light on your body to relieve pain is weird, just remember that pain itself is weird. And you won’t know if it works until you try it.