The term “red light therapy” or “photobiomodulation” has become more commonly used in the health and wellness community in the last few years. New products and brands are appearing with offerings that span a vast range of benefits ranging from higher energy levels, to physical performance enhancement, and more. Numerous research and published studies support many of the benefits.
Furthermore, various practitioners and influencers in the health and wellness space are actively promoting the benefits of red light. Some professional sports teams now have red light therapy rooms, to capitalize on its benefits. All of this creates a lot of buzz. Thus, more people are starting to look at red light products as options for their wellness needs.
Many of these options are viable, and many benefits are documented and well-supported by clinical and exploratory research. However, if you are a novice to this rapidly growing field called red light therapy, you may find yourself disoriented. There are so many products and so many options to choose from, and the terminology can be confusing.
Red light vs near infrared light
The term “red light therapy” is often used liberally and may be extended to include near infrared light therapy. Although similar in principle, these forms of light therapy have some distinct differences and should be differentiated. There are similar effects in which both induce biochemical mechanisms that stimulate cellular processes.
One important difference between red and near infrared forms of light is the wavelength of the light. Red light falls into the 620-700 nm wavelength spectrum and is visible to the human eye. Near infrared light falls into the 800-2500 nm wavelength spectrum. This form of light is not visible to the naked eye. However, Near infrared light can penetrate deeper into the body, and even can pass through the skull. Therefore, emerges the term transcranial photobiomodulation (tPBM), which refers to the near infrared light therapy intended to stimulate the brain.
The focus of this article is to provide introductory information about red light therapy for the newcomers interested in this space.
Brief history of light therapy
There can be disagreements on where actual roots of the red light therapy begin. Some can argue that the father of light therapy was Dr. Niels Ryberg Finsen (1860-1904), a Danish physician and scientist. Dr. Finsen studied effects of the concentrated electric light on patients with lupus vulgaris, a form of tuberculosis. In 1903 he received a Nobel Prize in psychology for his innovative treatment method using light.
Dr. Finsen’s work is scientifically important and has major historic significance. However, it is more common to start the clock of modern red-light therapy history with Dr. Endre Master (1903–1984). A Hungarian physician, Dr. Master developed the first low-level laser (LLL) device in 1967. In his studies of LLL’s effects on cancer, he accidentally noticed its effects of accelerated wound healing in laboratory mice.
Today, more than half-a-century later, scientists, engineers and medical professionals are still studying the effects of red light on the human body. The modern trailblazers of light therapy have access to new technologies which were not available to its original pioneers. Furthermore, it also expanded the understanding of the science behind the effects of red-light therapy on human physiology.
Light therapy research and advancement
Numerous studies have been conducted and published, advancing the depth of understanding of light therapy, and expanding the scope of its applications. Thus, to date, there are over six thousand published research papers on the subject of light therapy.
New research has provided important data supporting therapeutic effects of red light. Still, despite years of research, many consider red light to be therapeutically controversial and ambiguous modality. This happens due to its status as an alternative therapy which stands outside of the traditional medical protocols.
However, research, new technologies, and modern design and manufacturing capabilities are helping to shift the state of red-light therapy. Thus, some new protocols include red light therapy as a modality for a number of indications in dentistry. Furthermore, there are recent studies that highlight the benefits of red light in other medical applications for humans. Some of these new applications go beyond the scope of general wellness and cross into the medical domain. The use of red light for animal care is even more extensive.
With regards to the general wellness applications, red light therapy acceptance is growing even faster. As the costs of new products decrease, the adoption increases. For example, red-light LEDs show the same effect as low level lasers. As LEDs are safer, and cheaper to manufacture, there is growth in new LED red light therapy devices for numerous applications. With quantity comes quality. The interest in the products increases, as more users recognize the benefits, acceptance and demand grow.
What are the types of red-light therapy devices and applications?
There are red light panels, red light masks, red light intranasal devices, red light beds, red light helmets and simple red-light lamps. The diversity of available light therapy products is growing every year. With multitude and diversity come new designs.
The terminology is also evolving. For example, photobiomodulation is a commonly used term for light therapy, particularly red and near infrared light therapies. Yet, there are (PBM), and red light therapy is one of them.
For example, there is a range of red-light therapy devices focused on topical applications. Thus, this group includes devices intended to improve hair growth, skin aging, clarity and wrinkles. Other devices come with a promise to shrink your waistline. Importantly, most of them can cite support of at least one published research study.
The majority of devices used for topical applications are red light panels. They come in different sizes and with different power options. Some panels include both red light and near infrared light sources. Other therapy devices in the topical category include red.
Red light therapy devices for muscle relaxation and recovery
Yet another group of red-light therapy products offers help with muscle relaxation and recovery, and promises physical performance enhancement. Red light therapy panels and beds are the most common design options in this. However, this is the domain where red light devices are competing with near infrared light devices. There are also devices that combine both red and near infrared light, like Vielight X-Plus, for example, a wearable PBM device designed for personal, at-home use.
The list of use cases for red light therapy devices goes on, and there will be much more to come