Cold light laser therapy is also known as LLLT or Low Level Laser Therapy. Laser therapy involves administering cold light waves to the tissues so there is no thermal or heating effects.
Different theories abound but the most common one seems to be that light at certain wavelengths can penetrate the tissues and some studies have found changes in the cell membrane in response to this. It is assumed that these changes in the cell membrane increase healing, reduce inflammation and diminish pain.
This therapy is not without its critics – many argue that the light simply cannot penetrate deeply enough into the tissues to make any difference – most of the light is absorbed at the surface of the skin.
I have absolutely no idea! I have to admit that I have never used laser therapy; I decided early on in my career that preferred a more active approach to managing back pain.
The research is very mixed – there are lots of studies that show it works and lots that show it doesn’t. Those that use it argue that the negative trials are as a result of incorrect dosage and settings. A recent Cochrane review (1) (normally very reliable) found that there was little effect with cold laser therapy but that review has been criticised for not including all the relevant research and has been withdrawn. The new review should be available in 2008 so we will have to wait.
2010 - UPDATE
The review has been updated and the authors have not changed their conclusions - namely there is not enough high quality research to be certain either way when using LLLT to treat lower back pain.
An excellent reference point for anyone interested in this is Tim Watsons web site.
1. Yousefi-Nooraie, R. et al. Low level laser therapy for nonspecific low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2008).