Will a Cold Laser Relieve Your Neck or Back Pain?

Doctor Administering Cold Laser Therapy Treatment to Female Pati
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Lasers are used in a variety of medical treatments ranging from eye surgery to prostate treatment, tumor reduction, kidney stone eradication, cosmetic surgery, skin surgery, and more. They also play a diagnostic role.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine says that laser beams, as they are used in medicine, are very small and focused, which allows the healthcare provider to safely treat the area that needs it—without involving surrounding tissue.

Types of Lasers Used in Medicine

Of the hundreds of types of laser, OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. government) reports that only about 12 systems are in use in medicine. Laser systems are classified according to how much damage they do to eyes and skin upon exposure. Class 1 systems, according to OSHA, are incapable of producing damaging radiation levels when used normally. Class 4 systems, on the other hand, are hazardous to skin and eyes when these are exposed to the direct beam. Class 4 lasers sometimes pose other hazards too; for example, fire hazards, diffuse reflections, and/or laser-generated airborne contaminants.

Laser works by exposing cells and/or tissue to red and near infrared light. The strongest type of laser, the Class 4, is used in surgery because the goal of surgery is to alter biological tissue. Types of surgery performed by Class 4 laser include ablation (surgical removal of body tissue,) cutting, and coagulating tissue with heat.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine says that while laser does not pose health risks to patients, nor to the medical staff administering the treatment, it does come with the same risks of conventional surgery.  These include pain, bleeding, and scarring. Recovering from a laser treatment is faster than from a traditional surgery.

But what about non-surgical care of neck or back pain? Is there a role for this type of therapy for spine healing and rehab? 

Cold Laser, aka Low Level Laser

Low level laser, also known as “cold laser” has been used widely, particularly in chiropractic offices, since the mid-1990s. Some chiropractors use it as an adjunct treatment for facet joint pain, acute, and chronic pain due to herniated disc, and more.  

It is called cold laser because the beam is a Class 3B, which is of a lower temperature than the Class 4 type that is used in surgery (and described above.)

A Class 3B laser system may possibly be injurious to eyes or skin when direct contact is made with the beam, or in cases of shiny, mirror-like viewing conditions. But, usually, it's pretty safe.  

That's good, but does it relieve pain? Studies reveal some promise:

According to a 2012 meta-analysis that evaluated pain relief for joints after the use of laser, this treatment has been proposed as a physical therapy modality for musculoskeletal disorders and has attained popularity due to its reported lack of side effects.

In their report, "Neck Pain Evidence Summary," the Bone and Joint Decade Task Force on Neck Pain found that low level laser therapy is likely helpful in the short term for neck pain that is not accompanied by trauma.

Treatments in the same category, according to the Task Force, include exercise training, mobilization, manipulation, acupuncture, and analgesics (i.e., pain relieving medication).

Sources:

Chung, H., Dai, T., Sharma, S., Huang,Y.,Carroll, J., Hamblin, M. The Nuts and Bolts of Low-level Laser (Light) Therapy Ann Biomed Eng. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3288797/.

The Bone and Joint Decade Task Force. Neck Pain Evidence Summary.2010. http://www.iwh.on.ca/system/files/documents/neck_pain_summary_2010.pdf.

Jang, H., Lee, H. Meta-Analysis of Pain Relief Effects by Laser Irradiation on Joint Areas. Photomed Laser Surg. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3412059/.

Laser therapy. MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. July 2015. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001913.htm.

OSHA. Surgical Suite. Use of Medical Lasers. United States Department of Labor website. https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/hospital/surgical/lasers.html.