Common Back Problems Treated with Cold Laser Therapy

Back Problems Treated with Cold Laser Therapy

Doctor Administering Cold Laser Therapy Treatment to Female Pati
BanksPhotos / Getty Images

Low-level laser therapy, also known by its acronym LLLT, as well as “cold laser therapy”, has been around as a pain relief treatment for over 30 years.  It’s popular in chiropractic offices in particular, perhaps because it’s a non-invasive therapy that seems to get good results for people.

Cold laser therapy is approved by the FDA as a treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, but not for other common musculoskeletal maladies. 

Many studies have been done on cold laser therapy – some with good results and some with not so good results; for this reason, it’s still considered to be a “controversial” treatment.  Jang and Lee, in their meta-analysis study published in the August issue of the journal Photomedicine and Laser Surgery reports a “grade,” so to speak of “ineffective” in a significant number of clinical trials that look at the outcomes of this photo based treatment.

In this slide show, you’ll learn a few research based facts on how LLLT is used – and the results it may be getting – for common neck and back problems.

Related: Low Level Laser Therapy in Medicine 

Cold Laser Therapy for Facet Joints

Depiction of a spine with spondylosis and facet joint hypertrophy
Facet joint hypertrophy may cause radiculopathy symptoms. Medical Art Inc./E+/Getty Images

Cold Laser Therapy for Inflamed Facet Joints

Spinal and other joints can get inflamed upon injury or when flare-ups related to chronic conditions occur.  Generally, the first thing a doctor will suggest or prescribe for this is some type of medication:  Acetaminophen, NSAIDs and/or corticosteroid injections.

Problem is, these treatments can come with side effects, which may be why a lot of people turn away from such conventional medical strategies.  Surgery is sometimes done, as well, but again, the results are not always satisfactory, according to a meta-analysis published in the August 2012 issue of Photomedicine and Laser Surgery

Related: Chiropractic Adjustments

Low level laser therapy is one of several alternative treatments that may help manage or reduce joint pain due to inflammation.  The others include exercise, electrical stimulation, acupuncture and laser acupuncture.

The systematic review mentioned above showed that cold laser can be an effective treatment for joint disease if the energy dose used is such that it inhibits inflammatory activity in the joint capsule.

Related: Capsulitis

A study published in the March - April 2011 issue of the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapies compared spinal manipulative therapy with low level laser therapy for people with facet joint pain in their necks.  The researchers found that both types of treatments were helpful, but when used in combination, the results were even better.

Related: Facet Joint Pain

Low Level Laser Therapy for Pain Due to Herniated Disc

Depiction of a herniated disc
Depiction of a herniated disc. Medical Art Inc/E+/Getty Images

Low Level Laser Therapy for Pain Due to Herniated Disc

Often a herniated disc causes symptoms of radiculopathy, which can show up as pain, weakness, numbness and/or electrical sensations (shock, burning, pins and needles, etc.) that go down one leg or one arm.  Many people elect surgery as their treatment, particularly if physical therapy has been tried for 6 weeks with no real pain relief to speak of.  But it’s well known that the extruding disc material resorbs back into the body in about a year.  Based on this, some hardy people opt to wait it out. 

Other treatments (and some that those who opt out of surgery use) include chiropractic and/or epidural steroid injections, and of course, low level laser therapy. Some or all of these non-surgical treatments are used in combination with one another.

Evidence for low level laser therapy as a herniated disc treatment is more difficult to find than it is for facet joint pain.  In a general review on low level laser treatment, the Cochrane Back and Neck Group concluded that although no side effects were reported, they could not find enough evidence in favor of using cold laser for non-specific low back pain to recommend it.

But an article published in Dynamic Chiropractic (written by an M.D. and a research scientist) criticized many of the well-respected reviews, including the Cochrane review, saying that although these call for more research on cold laser therapy for back pain, they don’t specify at exactly what point the therapy will have proven itself.

There is good news for people with disc herniation who wish to go the alternative route.  A 2008 published in the Journal of Manipulative and  Physiological Therapeutics found that along with traction and ultrasound, low level laser therapy was an effective treatment for acute lumbar herniated disc.  The authors say their results suggest such measures may have an important role to play in treatment for this problem.

Another study, published in the September 2012 issue of Laser Therapy found cold laser treatment to be effective for pain due to herniation of a cervical disc that's related to spondylosis. This study also found that to keep the good effects and benefits of low level laser therapy going, posture education during activities of daily living was key.


Architectural view of a big library with lots of books.
Architectural view of a big library with lots of books. Carl Bruemmer / Design Pics/Perspective/Getty Images


Jang, H., Lee, H. Meta-Analysis of Pain Relief Effects by Laser Irradiation on Joint Areas Photomed Laser Surg. Aug 2012

Kahn, F., Patterson, M. Laser Therapy for Disc Herniations. Dynamic Chiropractic. Volume 34, Number 6.

Saayman, L., Hay C., Abrahamse H. Chiropractic manipulative therapy and low-level laser therapy in the management of cervical facet dysfunction: a randomized controlled study. J Manipulative Physiol March - April 2011.

Takahashi, H., et. al. Low Level Laser Therapy for Patients with Cervical Disk Hernia Laser Ther. September 2012.

Unlu Z., et. al. Comparison of 3 physical therapy modalities for acute pain in lumbar disc herniation measured by clinical evaluation and magnetic resonance imaging. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. March 2008 ​

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