Does Red Light Therapy Really Help with Arthritis Pain?
After ten years of physical therapy for knee osteoarthritis, I walked slowly, avoided stairs, and was often woken at night with random stabs in the knee. Three weeks into self-treating with red light therapy, I ascended the stairs with no pain. I’ve maintained these gains for over a year.
Red light therapy helps decrease arthritis pain. The light triggers adenosine triphosphate (ATP), blood flow, and collagen, that help with repair. It signals the cell to calm chronic inflammation, and desensitizes nerves to fell less pain.
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How Effective is Red Light Therapy on Arthritis?
Red light therapy significantly reduces arthritis pain. In the studies we examine in this article, subjects experienced immediately relief after therapy. The treated subjects still had pain relief effects from red light therapy when tested as many as 8 months after treatment.
How Long Does It Take for Red Light Therapy to Work on Arthritis?
Red light therapy can provide relief as soon as the first therapy treatment. This result is typical in the studies testing red light therapy on osteoarthritis pain. In studies testing improved strength, range of motion, and faster movement, the results grew over the span of 8 weeks.
Types of Arthritis: Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis
The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that occurs when the cartilage that cushions the joints wears away over time. The loss of cushioning causes bones to rub against one another. The friction leads to pain, stiffness, and swelling (inflammation).
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the joints. The immune system unleashes harmful molecules onto the joints as if it were attacking an enemy, such as a virus, for example.
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect people of all ages, and if left untreated, it can lead to joint deformity and disability.
Prevalence of Arthritis
Arthritis is a prevalent condition that affects people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, although it is more common among older adults.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 23% of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis. The CDC estimates that 78 million adults in the U.S. will have arthritis by the year 2040.
Impact of Arthritis on Daily Life
Arthritis causes pain and stiffness that makes it difficult to perform normal activities. The pain can affect dressing, cooking, moving, and participation in physical and social activities. The loss of simple skills and social contact can lead to depression and anxiety.
Some people with arthritis go on disability from work, and engage caregiving services when possible. This is why keeping arthritis pain down is a priority, because arthritis can lead to a poor quality of life.
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is the non-invasive, drug-free, low-energy delivery of visible and infrared light that absorbs in the cells and triggers several healing processes.
Also known as photobiomodulation, low level light therapy, low level laser therapy, and about 70 other names, the therapy is available over the counter, without a prescription, and has a side effect profile that is a fraction of “safe drugs” such as Tylenol and aspirin.
History of Red Light Therapy
Red Light Therapy has been used in various forms for centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans used sunlight to heal various ailments. Nobel Prize winner Neils Finnsen advocated red light exposure to contain Small Pox. He prescribed red light in his clinics with great success. So long as Small Pox patients completely avoided the “chemical rays” (ultraviolet) of the sun, and exposed themselves instead to only red light, the disease would heal on its own.
That’s me, my knee, my red light therapy, and my little dog
A 1967 accident led to the red light therapy we know today. Hungarian Dr. Endre Mester shone a laser on mice. His experiment failed, but something happened he didn’t expect. The mice exposed to the light grew their shaved hair back faster than the placebo group.
Something about his laser had changed the mice’s biology. The laser turned out to be low-power, an unintentional error that led to the invention of low level laser therapy.
The therapy is now known as photobiomodulation, and is especially popular amongst dentists, veterinarians, and chiropractors.
How Red Light Therapy Works
Red light therapy is the delivery of low-energy visible and infrared light to create healthy responses in the cells. The light absorbs in the mitochondria which respond by creating more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the batteries that power physical work in the cells.
Increased Oxygen and Nutrition
The mitochondria also throw nitric oxide to the blood vessels, which dilate and allow more oxygen and nutrition to reach damaged tissue.
Increased Anti-Inflammatory Messaging and Decreased Oxidative Stress
The mitochondria also create short bursts of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that message the cell to stop the constant cascade of inflammatory attacks. At the same time, the mitochondria also reduce the ROS that escape the ATP creation process, which reduces oxidation and inflammation from that source.
Reduced Nerve Sensitivity
Red light therapy blocks the COX-2 enzyme involved in recruiting prostaglandins to the injury site. This is the same activity as occurs with Ibuprofen, in that both red light therapy and the drug are COX-2 inhibitors. The result is less sensitivity to pain at the treatment site. Unlike drugs, though, red light therapy has no effect on the stomach or kidney.
Red Light Therapy Popularity
Using red light at home for acne and wrinkle therapy is very popular. Lights designed for treating mitochondria in the brain are coming online to help reduce symptoms of dementia and Parkinson’s. The therapy accelerates wound healing and energizes the body’s innate ability to repair itself.
How Red Light Therapy Can Help Arthritis Pain
Several studies show that red light therapy reduces inflammation and improves joint mobility in patients with arthritis.
Reducing the inflammation allows the joint to begin a healing process that is impossible when cytokines and other inflammatory chemicals are preventing repair.
Novaa Knee Pad for Arthritis
I’m fond of the Novaa Lab Healing Pad for reducing arthritis pain. I have arthritis, old injuries, and surgery damage in my right knee. Read the rest of the story in my article How the Novaa Knee Pad Knocks Out Arthritis and Injury Pain (opens in a new browser)
Red light therapy stimulates the production of collagen, essential for soft tissue health. It also quells the overproduction of reactive oxygen species (ROS) — free radicals — that create oxidative stress and inflammation.
The adenosine triphosphate uptick lends energy to the tissue repair processes.
Inflammatory swelling is one of the causes of arthritis joint stiffness; when the inflammation goes down, the range of motion in the affected joints increases.
The nitric oxide that leaves the mitochondria for the blood vessels triggers better blood flow. The blood brings oxygen and nutrition to damaged joints for cellular repair. The ATP and blood allow healing in stiff joints that cannot happen when blood flow is blocked and ATP energy carrier production is low.
Studies on Red Light Therapy for Arthritis Pain
Because independent researchers referred to red light therapy by so many names over the last 60 years, it’s difficult to get a complete list of scientific articles in one search. Here’s a partial list of arthritis studies involving red light therapy at pubmed.gov, the National Institute of Health’s medical database.
Red Light Therapy Study on Knee Osteoarthritis
Researchers tested red light therapy on patients with knee osteoarthritis in a study published in the January 2023 Journal Scientific Reports[i]. Forty-eight participants with knee osteoarthritis were treated with sham, red, or infrared light over the course of 8 weeks.
The pain-relief results of this study come from the gains the treated group attained after red light therapy treatment. All physical measurements improved, from quickly standing and sitting over and over, to how quickly they walked a 120 feet several times.
The inference is that osteoarthritis knee pain correlates highly with slower sitting, slower standing, and slower walking.
When pain goes down, the body speeds up.
Before and after the therapy intervention, researchers tested the subjects for strength, mobility, and self-reported pain. They tested and then re-tested the subjects standing from a sitting position, walking fast over a 40 meter (131 ft.) span.
As the subjects were exercising throughout the study, one expectation was that they would gain strength from that exercise. However, if arthritis slowed the pace of exercise, the muscles would not gain as much strength.
Treated Group Got Stronger
The infrared group gained 2.67% strength in the muscles that allow the knee to extend, which was a statistically significant result. The sham group gained 1.74% in strength, which was a trend that was not statistically significant.
Dosing is Still in Development
One very important lesson to understand from these strength results is that the science of how much light and which wavelengths of light is still in its infancy. Studies like these help define the parameters that will one day be commonplace and obvious.
This is one of the reasons to consider buying your red light therapy device for arthritis only from established companies with an extensive clinical customer base. Much of the work of how to dose with light comes from experience outside the lab.
In this case, infrared light performed at therapeutic levels. In the majority of the studies I’ve read, red and infrared do equally well in quelling arthritis pain and in improving strength.
Treated Group Sit-Stand Got Faster
In fact, the red light group in this study had significant gains in the 30-second chair test, during which they stood and sat as much as possible in a 30 second period. The infrared and sham groups showed only minimal improvements.
Treated Group Walked Better
The length of the stride is how far you go as one leg goes forward and the foot hits the ground. It’s a proxy for measuring knee arthritis pain, because when the knee hurts, the stride gets shorter.
In this study, both the red light and infrared light treated groups walked faster after treatment, but the sham treatment group did not.
Significant Pain Relief for 820 Arthritis Patients
A 2023 Somatosensory and Motor Research[ii] article looked at 6,307 red light therapy studies for signs of arthritis pain relief.
They found 14 randomly controlled trials testing red light therapy on osteoarthritis pain. This pain also happened to be in the knee; there are successful studies on other arthritic areas that we don’t have room for in this article.
The researchers found that the therapy afforded a significant amount of pain relief immediately after therapy, as well as weeks and even months later.
The studies included in the meta-analysis used wavelengths in the red and infrared range from 640 nm to 905 nm. Again, these studies add to the library of what works to relieve osteoarthritis pain.
Red Light Therapy Recommendations for Arthritis Pain Relief
There are a few ways to go with arthritis pain relief; the type of device you buy actually depends more on your lifestyle than on how the devices are configured.
If you want to take twenty minutes a day to bathe yourself in healing red and infrared light, then you want a half body or full body panel. This will deliver light to your arthritic areas and lower inflammation throughout the body. When using the red light setting, a panel can be very bright. You will probably want to wear goggles.
This means that you are sitting in one place for 20 minutes. Are you OK with that kind of peace and quiet? Then a panel will get you the most light on your entire body, lowering inflammation throughout.
Panels are excellent if your personality allows you to sit quietly or with just audio for company during the session. Personally, I can’t do that. I need to read or watch a video while doing my therapy, and panels give me too much time to just think. One solution is to put on music, an audiobook, or a radio program. I like 1940’s private eye stories to keep me entertained.
Another option is to get a panel with independent red and infrared light, and just use the infrared. That’s barely visible to the human eye, and therefore you don’t need goggles while getting light. Then you can keep typing or watching a video during red light therapy.
Hey – how do you know if you need goggles with red light therapy? Check my article One Test to See if You Need Red Light Therapy Goggles
Novaa Knee Pad for Arthritis Knee Pain
I have a soft spot in my heart for the Novaa Knee Pad, which you probably should view before deciding which red light therapy to get for knee arthritis: How the Novaa Knee Pad Knocks Out Arthritis and Injury Pain (opens in a new browser).
Or just go directly to NovaaLab to get the Knee Pad now.
MitoRED MitoMAX for Knee Arthritis
If I were to choose a panel today, I would get the Mito Red Light MitoMAX. Mito Red Light has been around, they have great customer service, and they won’t let you down.
This is a decision, though. On the one had, a panel is an indirect way to get pain relief. It might take longer than using a wrap that’s right on the skin. On the other hand, panels recharge the whole body. Bathing in light every day lowers inflammation at a system level. It takes longer, but the results are bigger than just the knee.
See the MitoMAX red light therapy panel here. (Use coupon code RED for a 5% discount).
[ii] Malik S, Sharma S, Dutta N, Khurana D, Sharma RK, Sharma S. Effect of low-level laser therapy plus exercise therapy on pain, range of motion, muscle strength, and function in knee osteoarthritis – a systematic review and meta-analysis. Somatosens Mot Res. 2023 Mar;40(1):8-24. doi: 10.1080/08990220.2022.2157387. Epub 2022 Dec 28. PMID: 36576096.