Overview

Cold laser therapy is a controversial alternative medicine treatment. It’s a method of exposing tissue to low levels of red and near-infrared light. The levels are low in comparison to other laser therapies that produce heat, such as those used for cutting or ablation.

Other names for cold laser therapy are low-intensity laser light therapy (LLLT), soft laser therapy, or low-power laser therapy.

Different wavelengths are needed to treat specific conditions. The light energy goes right through your skin. It can penetrate two to five centimeters into tissues, where it triggers a physiological reaction. The reaction may reduce inflammation, improve circulation, and promote healing.

This therapy can be used for a number of problems, including knee pain due to injury or osteoarthritis. Continue reading to learn how cold laser therapy works, who shouldn’t use it, and some other tips on how to manage knee pain.

What happens during the procedure?

Cold laser therapy is administered with a small handheld device in an office setting. It’s a noninvasive procedure that can be performed by a doctor, clinician, or physical therapist.

It can harm your eyes to look directly into the laser, so you might be asked to use protective eyewear.

The doctor will hold the handheld device close to or touching the skin on your knee for 30 seconds to a few minutes. The length of time is determined by the dose and the size of the area being treated.

The light energy will pass through the skin and into your tissues, where it will be absorbed. The light energy helps to lessen inflammation and promote regeneration of damaged tissue.

It generally takes more than a single treatment to feel better. How many it takes will vary depending on how much damage there is to your knee. You may need to return several times per week for a few weeks or months.

Does the procedure hurt?

You might feel a slight tingling sensation, but you won’t feel heat or cold. It’s also painless. There’s no lengthy recovery time, so you can go home right away.

Pros and cons of cold laser therapy

A 2003 review of 88 randomized, controlled trials found that cold laser therapy may help reduce pain. However, the authors noted that the studies may have been flawed, so the results should be accepted with caution. More recently, a small study of seven participants found that cold laser therapy provided some anti-inflammatory and pain relief benefits to people with pain in their Achilles tendons. This led the researchers to conclude that cold laser therapy may be beneficial in managing inflammatory conditions. Still, this study was small and did not focus on the use of this treatment for knee pain. More research is needed to determine the efficacy of cold laser therapy for knee pain.

Pros

  • painless, noninvasive treatment
  • fast recovery time

Cons

  • you may need up to 30 treatments before you feel pain relief
  • may not be covered by your insurance

The appeal is that cold laser therapy is painless, noninvasive, and doesn’t involve potent drugs. There’s no preparation necessary, and you can get back to business right away. You may have mild knee discomfort for a few days, but there generally aren’t any serious side effects. What’s more, you can have cold laser therapy even if you’re using other treatments for knee pain.

You can also purchase a cold laser device for home use, which may be more convenient. Before you do, make sure you have a diagnosis and that it’s safe to treat your condition this way. Consult with your doctor or physical therapist to find out what features you should look for and which ones to avoid.

On the con side, you generally don’t get relief right away. It may take up to 30 treatments, so there’s a lot of time involved. It’s a form of alternative medicine and considered unproven by many doctors and insurance providers. So, your treatments may not be covered through your health insurance. Be sure to check your coverage before starting treatment.

Who is a good candidate for this treatment?

Cold laser therapy can be used to treat pain caused by injury or aging, such as osteoarthritis in the knee. It can also be used to treat:

It’s not for everyone, however. If you have skin lesions, for example, they must be confirmed as noncancerous before you can consider cold laser therapy. This treatment should also not be used over the thyroid gland or directly on the eyes. It should not be used to treat an undiagnosed condition, either.

It’s not known if this therapy has any effect on a developing fetus, so you should avoid it during pregnancy. Let your doctor know if you are pregnant or may be pregnant.

Other treatment options

There’s no cure for osteoarthritis of the knee. Your doctor can advise you on all your treatment options, which may include:

  • oral or topical anti-inflammatory and pain medications, including analgesics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) available over the counter or in prescription-strength form
  • injectable corticosteroid treatments for temporary relief of inflammation and pain
  • injectable hyaluronic acid treatments for temporary relief of symptoms
  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • exercise
  • surgery to repair or replace damaged knees

It may take more than one method of treatment to help manage osteoarthritis of the knee.

Learn more: Treatments for osteoarthritis of the knee »

What’s the outlook?

Cold laser therapy may provide temporary pain relief for osteoarthritis of the knee, but it doesn’t work for everyone. It’s an alternative medicine, and more research is needed to determine its efficacy. The success of the treatment varies from person to person.

It may be a good tool in your overall treatment plan for osteoarthritis of the knee as a complement to other therapies. If it doesn’t work, you do have other options.

Tips for home care

Whatever treatment you’re getting, there are some things you can do to care for your knees.

Exercise

When your knees hurt, exercise probably seems counterintuitive. But moving your knees can help reduce pain and stiffness and improve flexibility. Also, building supportive muscle around your knees will give them a much-needed assist.

You’ll want to avoid high-impact exercises that involve running or jumping. That means things like jogging and basketball are out. Walking, swimming, and cycling are examples of exercises that are good for your knees and that benefit your overall health without stressing your joints. You might also find it easier to move stiff joints by exercising in the pool.

If you’re new to exercise, start with gentle stretching and consult with your doctor. If you need some motivation, consider physical therapy or working with a personal trainer who has some knowledge of arthritis of the knee.

Manage your weight

Your knees do a lot of the heavy lifting in your life. Carrying additional weight adds more stress and strain to these hardworking joints. If you have a lot of weight to lose, avoid crash diets. Slow and steady is the key. Cut back on calories and add in a little exercise each day.

Use assistive devices

Poorly functioning knees shouldn’t force you into isolation. Knee braces, custom insoles, and canes can help you get around. You can buy assistive devices on your own, but talk to your doctor about which ones are likely to help. If your doctor writes a prescription, some insurers may cover part of the cost.

Give your knees a break

Certain activities, such as climbing stairs, can increase the pain of osteoarthritis. Whenever possible, use an elevator instead of the stairs. Otherwise, streamline your life however you can to cut down on stair climbing.

When your knees are acting up, choose shoes that offer good, solid support. And when symptoms flare, elevate your legs and try using heat or cold to soothe the ache.