Photobiomodulation for Chronic Pain

Colin Cook

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines chronic pain as any pain lasting more than 12 weeks. A study based on the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) determined that in the three months previous to the survey, 25 million U.S. adults had daily chronic pain. Another 23 million reported severe pain. That’s a lot of pain, and it’s tempting to think that it’s all somehow related. But, in fact, pain is one of the most complex, confusing, and individual of health phenomena.

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.”

Pain is a subjective phenomenon. It doesn’t show up on x-rays or in blood tests. The only way a doctor can understand your pain is to ask you about it. And if the NHIS study is to be believed, when the doctor doesn’t share your race, ethnicity, language preference, gender, and age, then it requires an extra measure of compassion or imagination to interpret your description of it. Theoretically, two different people can experience the same pain in different ways. What one experiences as debilitating, another might experience as merely annoying.

This may be why NIH seems so excited about the self-management approach to chronic pain: “In self-management programs, the individual patient becomes an active participant in his or her pain treatment — engaging in problem-solving, pacing, decision-making, and taking actions to manage their pain. Although self-management programs can differ, they have some common features. Their approach is that the person living with pain needs help learning to think, feel, and do better, despite the persistence of pain.” In that same vein, WebMD offers 11 tips for living with chronic pain: everything from learning deep breathing and meditation to exercising in order to release endorphins.

You won’t find photobiomodulation (PBM) on the WebMD list because WebMD tends to be fairly conservative. Wikipedia, another fairly conservative site, states flat-out that “Research has not found evidence that light therapy such as low level laser therapy is an effective therapy for relieving low back pain.” But that probably should be updated. There is evidence that PBM alleviates low back pain, and I blogged about it last August. The researchers I wrote about in that post hypothesized five possible mechanisms to explain PBM’s ability to mitigate pain, all of which operate at the cellular level.

If you have chronic pain of any kind, it is unlikely that your doctor will recommend PBM for its management. The technology is just too new, and despite the evidence I cited above, it is still considered unproved. But in the spirit of self-management, there is nothing to prevent you from trying it yourself. Book a few sessions of PBM at Peak Recovery & Health Center, and see for yourself if it helps. It could change your life.