Laser Therapy

Written by Natalie Phillips
Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Wider, MD

What is Laser Therapy?

Laser therapies are medical treatments that use focused light. Laser light is a very special kind of light. Unlike most light sources, it is tuned to very specific wavelengths. This allows it to be focused into powerful beams. Laser light is so intense it can be used to shape diamonds or cut steel.

In medicine, lasers offer surgeons the ability to work very precisely. They can focus on a small area and damage less of the surrounding tissue. Patients who have laser therapy may experience less pain, swelling, and scarring than with traditional surgery. However, laser therapy is expensive. It may also require repeated treatments.

Laser stands for: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

What is Laser Therapy Used For?

Laser therapy is used in many procedures. It may be used to:

  • shrink or destroy tumors, polyps, or precancerous growths
  • relieve symptoms of cancer
  • remove kidney stones
  • remove part of the prostate
  • repair a detached retina
  • improve vision (“laser eye surgery”)

Lasers can have a cauterizing (sealing) effect. They may be used to seal:

  • nerve endings, to reduce pain after surgery
  • blood vessels, to help prevent blood loss
  • lymph vessels, to reduce swelling and limit spread of tumor cells

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), lasers may be useful in treating the very early stages of cancers such as:

  • cervical cancer
  • penile cancer
  • vaginal cancer
  • vulvar cancer
  • non-small cell lung cancer
  • basal cell skin cancer (NCI)

When used in cancer treatment, laser therapy is usually used alongside other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.

Laser therapy is also used cosmetically. It can:

  • remove warts, moles, birthmarks, and sun spots
  • remove hair
  • lessen the appearance of wrinkles, blemishes or scars
  • remove tattoos

How is Laser Therapy Done?

Laser therapy techniques vary based on the specific procedure being performed. For example, if a tumor is being treated, a flexible endoscope may be used to direct the laser. This is a thin, lighted tube used to view tissues inside the body.

The endoscope is inserted through an opening in the body, such as the mouth. The surgeon then aims the laser and shrinks or destroys the tumor.

In contrast, for cosmetic procedures, lasers are often applied directly to the skin.

Different lasers are used for different procedures:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers make shallow cuts. They are often used for superficial cancers, such as skin cancer.
  • Argon lasers also make shallow cuts. They can be used to activate photosensitizing (light activated) drugs during Photodynamic therapy (PDT). This type of cancer treatment combines light with chemotherapy to kill more cancer cells.
  • Nd:YAG lasers can travel along optical fibers. They are used in Laser-induced interstitial thermotherapy (LITT), a type of cancer treatment.

What are the Risks of Laser Therapy?

Laser therapy has some risks. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), the risks for skin therapy include:

  • triggering the herpes simplex virus, the virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes
  • bleeding
  • infection
  • pain
  • scarring
  • skin color changes

There are other potential downsides to laser therapy.

  • The effects may not be permanent. Repeated treatment may be necessary.
  • Some laser surgery is done when a patient is under general anesthesia, which carries its own set of risks.
  • Treatments are expensive. This type of therapy may not be affordable for many patients.

What are the Benefits of Laser Therapy?

There are many potential benefits of receiving laser therapy:

  • Lasers are more precise than traditional surgical instruments. Cuts can be made shorter and shallower. This causes less damage to tissue.
  • Operations are generally shorter than traditional surgeries. They can often be done on an outpatient basis. Patients don’t have to spend the night in the hospital. If general anesthesia is required, it is usually used for a shorter time..
  • Patients usually heal faster. They may have less pain, swelling, and scarring than with traditional surgeries.
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