Neuropathy is one of the most common nerve disorders. Although for some people, it is mild, for others, it is adverse and makes it difficult to live a quality life. Yet, managing neuropathy can be quite challenging as traditional treatment options are not always effective.
In a quest to find an effective and sustainable treatment for neuropathy, there is increased interest in light therapy. This article will discuss how light therapy can be used to treat different types of neuropathy.
Neuropathy is a general term that refers to nerve damage. The nerve damage can be caused by a different disease and a wide range of factors. The most common causes include infection, injury, disease, and long-term alcohol use. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy predispose you to neuropathy. Also, low levels of Vitamin B1, B6, B12, copper, and vitamin E can cause nerve damage.
Types of Neuropathy
Below is an overview of the most common types of neuropathy:
Peripheral neuropathy is an umbrella term for nerve disorders that affect the peripheral nerves. Peripheral nerves are the network of nerves outside of the central nervous system. Peripheral neuropathy can be caused by traumatic injuries, toxins, or diabetes. Common symptoms include numbness, pain, tingling, and weakness in your extremities.
Diabetic neuropathy is specifically caused by diabetes. It is one of the most common complications of being diabetic, as prolonged high levels of blood sugar can cause nerve damage. It typically presents as numbness or pain in the feet and legs.
Autonomic neuropathy affects the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body functions, including heart rate, bladder control, digestion, and blood pressure. It has unique symptoms in comparison to other neuropathies. For example, sexual dysfunction, dizziness, bladder and bowel problems, and body temperature dysregulation, among others.
It is caused by chemicals and toxins, e.g., heavy metals, industrial solvents, and drugs. The symptoms depend on the specific toxins and the extent of nerve damage caused.
Focal or Mononeuropathy
It is nerve damage on a specific nerve. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome or Bell’s palsy.
Symptoms of Neuropathy
Aside from the unique symptoms presented by autonomic neuropathy, other types of neuropathies generally present the following symptoms:
- Pain in the affected area
- Tingling sensation
- Burning sensation
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of movement or body function
- Extreme sensitivity to touch
Types of Light Therapy for Neuropathy
Studies suggest that the use of low-light laser therapy (LLLT), particularly red and near-infrared light, is beneficial for the management and treatment of different types of neuropathy.
Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy is a non-invasive photobiomodulation treatment. It stimulates cellular activity and promotes therapeutic effects in the body. Red light therapy utilizes wavelengths of 600 to 700 nanometers (nm).
Near-Infrared Light Therapy
Near-infrared light therapy utilizes wavelengths ranging between 700 to 1000 nm. The higher wavelength range provides deeper penetration into the nerve tissues than red light therapy.
Mechanism of Action of Light Therapy for Neuropathy
When applied to the skin, red and near-infrared light penetrates the skin cells and is absorbed by cell components referred to as chromophores, in particular mitochondria. The light stimulates energy production in the cell, which is beneficial in different ways for the treatment and management of neuropathy.
Below is an overview of the mechanism of action of red and near-infrared light for neuropathy.
Enhances Cellular Mitochondrial Function
Nerve damage depletes energy from the cell. Light therapy increases ATP production, which is the primary source of energy in the cell. The increased energy supply enables the cells to perform their functions more effectively.
Light therapy further promotes mitochondrial biogenesis, the process through which new mitochondria are formed in the cell. Increased number of mitochondria further enhances cell function and repair.
Improves Blood Circulation
Light therapy promotes the widening of blood vessels, increasing blood flow to the nerve cells. This promotes adequate oxygen and nutrient supply to the damaged nerve cells, promoting their healing and repair. Increased oxygen supply further supports cellular metabolism and energy production.
Improved blood circulation also enhances cellular waste removal. It facilitates the purging of toxins and metabolic wastes, reducing inflammation. Furthermore, improved blood flow relaxes muscles, easing aches and tension.
The relationship between inflammation and neuropathy is bidirectional. Inflammation can contribute to the progression of neuropathy. On the other hand, neuropathy can worsen inflammation in the nerve cell. This creates a vicious cycle that increases inflammation and worsens neuropathy.
Light therapy has anti-inflammatory effects. Naturally, when your body is injured, infected, or tissues are damaged, it triggers an immune response that releases inflammatory molecules such as cytokines and chemokines. These chemicals recruit immune cells in the affected area to help the body combat pathogens.
However, if your immune response is dysregulated, it can lead to excessive production of the inflammatory chemicals. Light therapy modulates the immune response, suppressing autoimmune response and reducing nerve damage.
Immune System Modulation
Light therapy influences different aspects of the immune response. It activates immune cells such as macrophages and lymphocytes. These immune cells play a crucial role in identifying and eliminating pathogens, damaged tissues, or abnormal tissues.
Light therapy also enhances phagocytosis. Phagocytosis is the process by which immune cells engulf and digest pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. The enhanced immune responses improve your body’s defense against infections and diseases.
Neuroprotection and Nerve Regeneration
Neuroprotection and nerve regeneration help to protect healthy nerves, heal damaged ones, and promote the regeneration of new ones. Light therapy acts in several ways to promote neuroprotection and nerve regeneration.
As mentioned above, it reduces oxidative stress, preventing the accumulation of free radicals that would cause further damage or degeneration of the nerve cells. Light therapy releases neurotrophic factors — proteins that promote cell growth, maintenance, and survival. These proteins enhance the resilience of your nerve cells and support your overall well-being.
When it comes to cell regeneration, light therapy promotes axonogenesis, neurogenesis, and neurite outgrowth. Axonogenesis refers to the growth of new nerve fibers, which is a crucial regeneration process for damaged nerves. On the other hand, neurogenesis is the formation of new nerve cells. Neurite outgrowth enables the nerve cells to reestablish functional connections.
Reduces Oxidative Stress
Harmful free radicals cause cell damage and oxidative stress. Light therapy has been shown to promote the production of antioxidants within the cell. Therefore, it improves the ability of the nerves to counteract oxidative stress.
Antioxidative effects are especially important for the management and treatment of peripheral neuropathy, as the damaged nerves cause excessive stress. The oxidative stress is associated with most of the peripheral neuropathy symptoms.
Reduces Pain Perception
Light therapy prevents abnormal firing of nerve cells. It also has analgesic effects that inhibit pain transmission through the neural pathways, resulting in immediate pain relief. Notably, light therapy stimulates the release of endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers and mood enhancers, which reduce your sensitivity to pain.
Benefits of Light Therapy for Neuropathy
- Non-invasive and safe
- Alleviate pain
- Can be used continually without long-term complications
- Easily accessible
- Improves the quality of your life
How to Use Light Therapy for Neuropathy
Below are general guidelines for using light therapy for neuropathy.
Professional vs Home Light Therapy
The first decision you have to make regarding the use of light therapy for neuropathy is whether to seek professional treatment or use home devices. It would be best to consult with your doctor or a specialist regarding the best option.
If you have severe neuropathy, it is advisable to start with professional treatment. Professionals use advanced and specialized light therapy equipment for optimal results. The equipment delivers higher intensities of red and near-infrared light to get results faster.
On the other hand, if you experience mild or occasional neuropathy symptoms, home light therapy may be better suited for you. It is convenient and cost-effective. Start by acquiring a suitable home device. Refer to the manufacturer’s manual for instructions on how to set up and guidance on the proper use of the device.
Alternatively, you can come up with a neuropathy treatment plan that includes both professional and home light therapy. Whereby more comprehensive treatment is done in professional settings. Then, you do home light therapy between the professional sessions or as a home remedy if you have a flare-up.
The appropriate frequency for light therapy depends on the type and severity of neuropathy and whether it is home or professional treatment. Severe neuropathy requires more frequent professional sessions. You can then do daily home treatments to stack up the benefits faster. For home devices, refer to the device manual for instructions on frequency.
Treatment duration per session typically ranges between 5-30 minutes, depending on the symptoms, treatment area, device specifications, treatment frequency, and your skin’s photosensitivity. It is recommended to start with shorter sessions and monitor closely if there are side effects, then increase the duration gradually.
Light therapy is generally safe. Most people do not experience side effects. For those that do, the side effects are mild, such as reddening of the skin or itchiness, and they usually clear on their own within a few days.
That said, there are recommended safety precautions when using light therapy. First, ensure to wear eye protection such as safety goggles or glasses. Light therapy devices emit intense light, which can potentially cause eye damage.
Secondly, ensure the skin in the affected area is bare. Clean it to get rid of dirt, oil, lotions, and other skin products. Ideally, the light should be focused on bare skin for optimal penetration. However, if you prefer, you can wear light clothing.
For professional treatment, adhere to the treatment schedule provided by the specialist. While for home devices, carefully read the user manual and adhere to the usage instructions provided by the manufacturer. If you experience side effects, report them to your specialist or discontinue the use of the home device.
Efficacy of Light Therapy for Neuropathy
One study evidenced that low-level light therapy is effective in reducing pain caused by peripheral neuropathy. However, there is a need for more studies to confirm these findings and establish ways to improve efficacy.
Which Is Better: Red vs Near Infrared Light for Neuropathy?
Both red and near-infrared light therapy have a similar mechanism of action. However, since near-infrared light is stronger, it may be better suited for the treatment of damaged nerves located deeper in the body or skin.
That said, both red and infrared can be included as part of a comprehensive neuropathy management plan. Consult with a healthcare professional or specialist regarding the right type of light therapy for neuropathy for you.