I spent a month in the hospital after my spinal fusion, because that’s just how surgery was done in the 1970s. They didn’t offer nerve blocks, and frankly, the morphine didn’t do a great job stopping the pain.
Red light therapy can ease post-surgery pain by blocking the COX-2 enzyme and reducing inflammation, adding energy to the healing process. Red light therapy is not a substitute for prescription pain killers but can complement pain relief strategies while healing from surgery.
Why Does Pain Occur After Surgery?
After surgery, the body goes through a healing process that involves inflammation and tissue repair. This process can cause pain and discomfort as the body works to heal itself.
Additionally, surgical procedures usually involve cutting through skin, muscle, and other tissues, which can cause significant trauma to the body.
The severity of pain after surgery can vary depending on the type of surgery and the individual patient’s pain tolerance. Some patients may experience only mild discomfort, while others may experience more severe pain that requires stronger pain management techniques.
The Types of Pain After Surgery
Pain is common after surgery, but you don’t have to suffer. Your doctor and anesthesiologist can help manage post-operative pain. You have non-medical options as well. Understanding the type of pain you have will help you control it.
Acute pain is the most common type of pain after surgery. It is usually felt at the site of the surgery and can be sharp or dull. Acute pain typically lasts for a few days to a week or two, depending on the type of surgery and the individual’s pain tolerance. To manage acute pain, doctors may prescribe pain medications or recommend over-the-counter pain relievers.
Chronic pain is pain that lasts for longer than three months. It can be caused by nerve damage or tissue scarring from the surgery. Chronic pain can be difficult to manage and may require a combination of medications, physical therapy, and other treatments. If you are experiencing chronic pain after surgery, it is important to discuss it with your doctor.
Referred pain is pain that is felt in a different area than the site of the surgery. For example, if you had surgery on your abdomen, you may feel pain in your shoulder due to referred pain. Referred pain is usually temporary and can be managed with pain medications.
Phantom pain is pain that is felt in the area where a limb or body part has been amputated. It can also occur after certain types of surgeries, such as breast removal or prostate removal. Phantom pain can be managed with medications, nerve blocks, or other treatments.
Incisional pain is pain that is felt at the site of the surgical incision. It is usually described as a burning or stinging sensation. Incisional pain can be managed with pain medications and by keeping the incision area clean and dry.
Nerve pain is caused by damage to the nerves during surgery. It can cause tingling, numbness, or burning sensations. Nerve pain can be difficult to manage and may require a combination of medications and other treatments.
Musculoskeletal pain is caused by damage to muscles or joints during surgery. It can cause stiffness, soreness, or limited mobility. Musculoskeletal pain can be managed with physical therapy, medications, and other treatments.
Psychological pain is caused by the emotional and psychological stress of surgery. It can cause anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders. Psychological pain can be managed with counseling, support groups, and medications.
How to Manage Post-Surgery Pain
Pain relief options include medicines, physical therapy, and alternative treatments.
Participating in physical therapy might cause some pain in the moment, but ultimately relieves pain by helping you heal correctly.
Pain relief medications include:
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (Ibuprofen)
- opioids (morphine and oxycodone)
Alternative therapies include:
- red light therapy
- heat therapy
- cold therapy
- deep breathing
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is the low-energy delivery of visible and infrared light to generate healing events at a cellular level. It relieves pain through several mechanisms, including inflammation reduction, desensitizing nerves, and accelerating the healing process.
Red light therapy is non-invasive, has few to no side effects (acetaminophen has a much more dangerous side effect profile than red light therapy), and is available without a prescription.
Discovered in 1967, there are over 50 years of research studies showing that red light therapy is remarkably effective at boosting the healing process.
Red light therapy for pain has been studied for its potential to treat a variety of conditions, including:
- Back Pain
- Chronic Pain
- Joint Pain
- Muscle Pain
- Musculoskeletal Injuries
- Sports injuries
- Wound healing
Research has shown that red light therapy may be effective in reducing pain and inflammation associated with these conditions, as well as improving range of motion and promoting healing.
Additionally, red light therapy for pain is a non-invasive and painless treatment option that does not carry the risk of side effects associated with medication or surgery. It is also a cost-effective alternative to traditional pain management methods.
What is Red Light Therapy for Pain Relief?
Red light therapy for pain is a non-invasive, drug-free treatment that uses low-level red light to alleviate pain and promote healing.
Red light therapy is also known as photobiomodulation (PBM) therapy or low-level laser therapy (LLLT). It helps with many conditions including arthritis, neuropathy, and soft tissue injuries.
Red light therapy is available in clinical settings but is also easy to do at home.
Advantages of Post-Surgery Red Light Therapy Pain Relief
Red light therapy is a non-invasive therapy you can buy over the counter without a doctor’s prescription. The advantages of using red light therapy include that it is:
- free of side effects
- able to be used with other treatments
- a promoter of cellular repair and regeneration
- a vessel dilator improving blood flow and healing
- an analgesic
Types of Surgery Pain that Red Light Therapy Relieves
Red light therapy has an analgesic (numbing) effect, reduces swelling, and promotes more complete healing. It has been shown in studies to be effective at relieving the pain of arthritis, for example, which is a joint pain that involves swelling. It has been shown to relieve soft tissue injury pain, which involves pain in the ligaments, tendons, and muscles. It speeds up wound healing, which every surgery will need.
Red light therapy should be useful for relieving these types of pain after surgery acute, chronic, incisional, and musculoskeletal pain
Red Light Therapy for Acute Pain
Red light therapy will have some effect on acute pain, but should not be relied upon as the first line of defense. The therapy is more suited to chronic pain and is not a substitute for medical intervention.
Red Light Therapy for Chronic Pain
Red light therapy is useful for relieving chronic pain mainly based on its ability to reduce chronic inflammation and its analgesic abilities.
Red Light Therapy for Referred Pain
There are few to no studies on red light therapy for referred pain. Theoretically, red light therapy will help here because it supports the myelin sheath covering of the nerves.
Red Light Therapy for Phantom Pain
There is no evidence that red light therapy will help with phantom pain, as this has never been tested.
Red Light Therapy for Incisional Pain
Red light therapy should help with pain at the point of the incision, but should not be relied upon as the first line of defense. As with acute pain in general, an incision will benefit from the analgesic effect, faster healing, and inflammation reduction.
Red Light Therapy for Nerve Pain
Red light therapy might help with nerve pain. People have used it for diabetic neuropathy. The evidence is not there yet to say for sure.
Red Light Therapy for Musculoskeletal Pain
Red light therapy is proven to reduce the pain of athletic injury, sprain, and strain of ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
Red Light Therapy for Psychological Pain
Red light therapy helps relieve anxiety and depression.
Studies on veterans with PTSD, those suffering from dementia, as well as healthy college students with normal as well as clinical anxiety, show that the therapy can be very useful for both anxiety and depression.
You should be aware, though, that these studies were conducted with specialized devices designed to put light directly into the brain.
There have been a few studies using “regular” (as opposed to brain light) devices over the gut and on the forearm. The theory is that these help with depression because (a) the gut is a second brain, and (b) the forearm blood flow is treated and routed to the brain through normal blood flow.
To learn more about brain light devices for anxiety and depression, see the section of this website on brain care.
How Does Red Light Therapy for Pain Work?
Red light therapy reduces post-surgery pain through several mechanisms that include:
- decreasing nerve sensitivity to pain
- increasing cellular energy
- decreasing chronic inflammation
- increasing blood flow
- promoting waste removal
How Blocking COX-2 to Inhibit Prostaglandins Helps Ease Post-Surgery Pain
Prostaglandins are chemicals that are produced by the body in response to tissue damage and inflammation. They play a role in pain perception and can contribute to post-surgery pain.
One way to ease post-surgery pain is by blocking the production of prostaglandins by inhibiting the enzyme cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2).
COX-2 inhibitors, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), work by blocking the production of prostaglandins. By inhibiting COX-2, these drugs can help reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain in the affected area.
While COX-2 inhibitors can be effective in reducing post-surgery pain, they do have some potential side effects. These drugs can increase the risk of bleeding, especially in patients who are also taking blood-thinning medications. They can also increase the risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack or stroke, in some patients.
Red Light Therapy Increases ATP (Cellular Energy)
After surgery, the body undergoes a natural healing process to repair damaged tissues.
This process can be painful and uncomfortable for the patient. Red light therapy can help relieve post-surgery pain by increasing the production of ATP in cells.
ATP is essential for cellular processes, including the production of new cells and the repair of damaged cells.
After surgery, the body needs more ATP to promote healing and reduce inflammation. By increasing the production of ATP in cells, red light therapy can help speed up the healing process and reduce post-surgery pain.
Red light therapy promotes the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP molecules are biological batteries that carry energy to cellular processes. The availability of energy post-surgery gives the wounded area an advantage in healing. Wounds treated with red light therapy heal faster than they normally would.
Red Light Therapy Decreases Inflammation
Post-surgery inflammation is a healthy response to surgical wounds, but chronic inflammation is unhealthy and destructive.
The application of red light therapy immediately after surgery does not interfere with healthy acute inflammation.
However, it does help the wound heal faster and more completely.
A 2023 study using the light on a surgical wound[i] showed that red light therapy did not interfere with the normal healing process during which acute inflammation is desirable.
Post-surgery red light therapy decreased the level of acute inflammation to a level that would be less painful but still productive. The light promoted faster and healthier cartilage regeneration and less scar formation.
Red Light Therapy Promotes Blood Flow
Increased blood flow is a crucial aspect of the body’s natural healing process after surgery. When tissues are damaged during surgery, the body responds by increasing blood flow to the affected area. This increased blood flow delivers oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, which helps to promote healing and reduce inflammation.
Red light therapy can help increase blood flow to the affected area, which can further promote healing and reduce post-surgery pain.
During red light therapy, the skin is exposed to a specific wavelength of light that is absorbed by the cells in the body. This energy is then converted into cellular energy, which helps to promote healing and reduce inflammation.
Red light therapy has been shown to stimulate the production of nitric oxide, which is a molecule that helps to increase blood flow. Nitric oxide causes the blood vessels in the affected area to dilate, which allows more blood to flow to the tissues. This increased blood flow delivers oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, which helps to accelerate the healing process and reduce post-surgery pain.
The advanced healing pace lowers pain by replacing wounded tissue with healthy collagen and cartilage.
Red Light Therapy Promotes Waste Removal
Surgery damages and kills cells that the body must haul away. The immune system cleans out dead cells during autophagy, which is a disposal process. Red light therapy has been shown in studies to promote the autophagy process of waste removal. Reducing waste from the healing area reduces swelling and pain.
Risks and Side Effects of Red Light Therapy for Pain
While red light therapy for pain is generally considered safe and well-tolerated, there are some potential risks and side effects to be aware of. These include:
Can Red Light Therapy Cause Eye Damage?
Red and infrared light in and of themselves cannot cause eye damage. In fact, many studies show that red light therapy is good for the eyes. However, very bright light can cause permanent eye damage, and some devices are unnecessarily bright. So protect your eyes if you’re using a bright device. The rule of thumb is, if you need to squint, you need to wear goggles.
Learn more about using goggles when doing red light therapy in my article: One Test to See if You Need Red Light Therapy Goggles
Does Red Light Therapy Interact with Medications?
A photosensitive medication interacts with light to cause hives and itching. If you are unsure of your medication status, ask the doctor or pharmacist before using red light therapy.
This is usually only an issue with ultraviolet light such as you get from the sun, and not red or infrared light. Nevertheless, a reaction is possible, so you should check first.
Can Epileptics Use Red Light Therapy?
Some red light therapy devices pulse, which means that they flicker on and off. The rate of pulsation determines whether or not you can actually see the turning off and on again. Anything over about 15 Hz (15 pulses for seconds) can be hard to even detect.
Epileptics know that flickering light can trigger seizures. The prudent response then is not to use pulsing light with your red light therapy. Some devices are not controllable; you get pulsation by turning on the power. Other devices give you control over whether the light pulses. Check before you begin.
Types of Surgery Pain-Relief Devices
You have several choices for pain-reduction devices. These include pads, panels, and handheld designs.
A handheld device will allow you to put the light directly on the surgical area. You do not need to touch the surgical wound with the device, as your doctor would probably advise against this anyway.
But you do want a device that is close to the area. First, because a device that is close loses fewer photons to distance; and second, because a close device loses fewer photons to reflection.
A handheld gives you the most precise dose of the various red light therapy device types. The disadvantage of a handheld is that you are able to treat only a small area a time.
To treat a larger area, use a pad or a panel. A pad is a neoprene wrap embedded with LEDs that you wrap around the area. A panel usually refers to a tall device but is any boxed light from the size of a tabletop to a full-height device.
The advantage of a pad is that you lose few photons to distance or reflection. However, pads tend to be low-power, so you need to run them for 20-30 minutes to get a full dose of light.
The advantage of a panel is that you can get a large area in one session. You lose light to distance and reflection, so it is difficult to get an exact dose of light using a panel.
How to Do Pain-Relief Red Light Therapy After Surgery
Although infrared light can penetrate a bandage to some degree, you are not going to get a measured, therapeutic dose through a barrier like that. You can treat yourself to red light therapy everywhere else besides the bandaged area. This will beef up your immune system, and supply your cells with adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy carriers that power cellular repair. The nitric oxide that travels to the blood vessels will open blood flow to your surgical wound as well.
Once the surgical area is available to the light, you can use a handheld, pad, or panel for red light therapy.
In all cases, you will do the same therapy with the device for surgery as you would for daily wellness sessions.
I could tell you to use a device for 10 minutes at some specific distance, but the fact is that every device has its own power parameters. The absolute best way to get a healthy dose of light is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Only the manufacturer (or someone with a spectrophotometer) knows how much photon energy travels from the device to the target at various distances and for different treatment times.
The instructions will give you the distance and time for your device. Distance is how far away it is in inches or centimeters. Time will reflect the amount of time it takes that specific device to transfer photon energy from the diodes to your body.
Follow those instructions, because it’s easy to get the wrong dose and get no benefit. But if you follow the directions, it should be easy to get a healing dose of light that eases your surgery pain.
[i] Lee HS, Lee Y, Kim H, Oh SJ, Hwang CW, Kang HW. Photomodulative effects of low-level laser therapy on tracheal fenestration developed in in vivo model. J Photochem Photobiol B. 2023 Mar;240:112669. doi: 10.1016/j.jphotobiol.2023.112669. Epub 2023 Feb 6. PMID: 36764068.