For many years, the healthcare industry has used laser therapy for several applications. Healthcare professionals use lasers for a multitude of applications, including wound care, plaque ablation, the reduction of pain and inflammation and even cancer treatment. More recently, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have become popular for many of the same applications. From minimizing post-operative pain to reducing edema to stimulating the healing of otherwise non-healing wounds, LEDs have irrefutable therapeutic benefits.
Still, there are notable differences between laser and LED light therapy, and each has its pros, cons and ideal applications in the physical therapy and rehab setting. If you’re trying to decide which option to use in your clinic or hospital, keep the following facts and research in mind.
Mechanisms of Action
LASER, which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, is created when electrons become “excited,” or more energized, after absorbing energy from an electrical current. Once these excited electrons return to their normal state, they release that energy as particles of light called photons. These photons all exist at the same wavelength, and they are propelled in the same direction, giving them the coherence that allows lasers to exert significant effects on matter.
In clinical practice, low-level laser (LLT) therapy involves exposing tissues to red and near infrared (NI) light, which are lower in energy than the lasers used in surgery. When lasers come into contact with cells, they act on the mitochondria to increase adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production. In turn, that increased ATP production can lead to faster production of collagen, vascular structures, DNA, RNA and other materials essential to the healing process.
In contrast, LEDs emit incoherent light in a broader range of wavelengths. Their power output is significantly lower than that of lasers, which tends to make them less invasive and less potentially harmful to targeted tissues. Still, they exert the same end effect on ATP production and healing as lasers, albeit to a different degree.
Both laser and LED therapies have significant bodies of evidence backing their efficacy. For instance, one of the first uses of LLT was in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome, where it has proven effective in reducing pain and improving grip strength in mild to moderate cases. It has also shown promise in the treatment of chronic pain and a variety of sports injuries, and it may even have applications in neurorehabilitation.
Ultimately, your best choice of light therapy will come down to your specific patient population, desired applications and budget. That said, there are combination devices that allow you alternate between LED and LLT, as well as ultrasound and other modalities, with the flip of a switch.