What is laser therapy?
Laser therapies are medical treatments that use focused light. Unlike most light sources, light from a laser (which stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) is tuned to specific wavelengths. This allows it to be focused into powerful beams. Laser light is so intense that it can be used to shape diamonds or cut steel.
In medicine, lasers allow surgeons to work at high levels of precision by focusing on a small area, damaging less of the surrounding tissue. If you have laser therapy, you may experience less pain, swelling, and scarring than with traditional surgery. However, laser therapy can be expensive and require repeated treatments.
Laser therapy 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
- treat hair loss resulting from alopecia or aging
- treat pain, including back nerve pain
Lasers can have acauterizing, or sealing, effect and 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 the spread of tumor cells
Lasers may be useful in treating the very early stages of some cancers, including:
- cervical cancer
- penile cancer
- vaginal cancer
- vulvar cancer
- non-small cell lung cancer
- basal cell skin cancer
For cancer, laser therapy is usually used alongside other treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
Laser therapy is also used cosmetically to:
- remove warts, moles, birthmarks, and sun spots
- remove hair
- lessen the appearance of wrinkles, blemishes, or scars
- remove tattoos
Who shouldn’t have laser therapy?
Some laser surgeries, such as cosmetic skin and eye surgeries, are considered elective surgeries. Some people decide the potential risks can outweigh the benefits of these types of surgeries. For example, some health or skin conditions may be aggravated by laser surgeries. As with typical surgery, poor overall health also increases your risk of complications.
Talk to your doctor before deciding to undergo laser surgery for any kind of operation. Based on your age, overall health, healthcare plan, and the cost of laser surgery, your doctor may recommend that you choose traditional surgical methods. For example, if you’re younger than 18 years, you should not get Lasik eye surgery.
Plan ahead to ensure that you have time to recover after the operation. Also make sure someone can take you home from the procedure. You will likely still be under the influence of anesthesia or medications.
A few days before the surgery, you may be advised to take precautions such as stopping any medications that can affect blood clotting, such as blood thinners.
Laser therapy techniques vary based on the procedure.
If a tumor is being treated, an endoscope (a thin, lighted, flexible tube) may be used to direct the laser and view tissues inside the body. The endoscope is inserted through an opening in the body, such as the mouth. Then, the surgeon aims the laser and shrinks or destroys the tumor.
In cosmetic procedures, lasers are usually applied directly to the skin.
Some common laser surgeries include:
- refractive eye surgery (often called LASIK)
- tooth whitening
- cosmetic scar, tattoo, or wrinkle removal
- cataract or tumor removal
Read more: LASIK eye surgery »
Different lasers are used for different procedures. For example, carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers make shallow cuts. They’re often used for superficial cancers, such as skin cancer.
Argon lasers also make shallow cuts and can be used to activate photosensitizing (light-activated) drugs during photodynamic therapy. This type of cancer treatment combines light with chemotherapy to kill more cancer cells.
Nd:YAG lasers can travel along optical fibers. They’re used in laser-induced interstitial thermotherapy, a type of cancer treatment.
Low level laser therapy (LLLT) is also called cold laser therapy. It uses laser light set to wavelengths between 600 and 980 nanometers. The laser is used to perform minor surgeries and promote regeneration in tissue. Programs exist that offer LLLT as an aid to quit smoking, but little evidence supports its use for this purpose.
Laser therapy has some risks. The risks for skin therapy include:
- changes in skin color
Also, the intended effects of treatment may not be permanent, so repeated sessions may be necessary.
Some laser surgery is performed while you’re under general anesthesia, which carries its own set of risks. They include:
- confusion after waking from the operation
- heart attack
Treatments can also be expensive and are therefore not accessible to everyone. Laser eye surgery can cost anywhere from $600 to $8,000 or more based on your healthcare plan and the provider or facility you use for your surgery. The costs of laser skin therapies can range from $200 to over $3,400, according to the University of Michigan Cosmetic Dermatology & Laser Center.
Lasers are more precise than traditional surgical instruments, and cuts can be made shorter and shallower. This causes less damage to tissue.
Laser operations are usually shorter than traditional surgeries. They can often be done on an outpatient basis. You also don’t have to spend the night in the hospital. If general anesthesia is required, it’s usually used for a shorter time.
People also tend to heal faster with laser operations. You may have less pain, swelling, and scarring than with traditional surgeries.
Recovery after laser surgeries is similar to that of typical surgery. You may need to rest for the first few days after the operation and take over-the-counter pain medication until the discomfort and swelling have gone down.
Recovery after laser therapy varies based on the type of therapy you received and how much of your body was affected by the therapy.
You should follow any orders your doctor gives you very closely. For example, if you have laser prostate surgery, you may need to wear a urinary catheter. This can aid in urinating right after the surgery.
If you received therapy on your skin, you may experience swelling, itching, and rawness around the treated area. Your doctor may use an ointment and dress up the area so that it’s airtight and watertight.
For the first couple of weeks after the treatment, be sure to do the following:
- Use over-the-counter medications for pain, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Clean the area regularly with water.
- Apply ointments, such as petroleum jelly.
- Use ice packs.
- Avoid picking any scabs.
Once the area has become overgrown with new skin, you may use makeup or other cosmetics to cover up any noticeable redness if you’d like.