According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arthritis affects 54.4 million adults. This staggering figure places it as one of the leading causes of disability in the United States. Arthritis is a broad umbrella term that can refer to any type of joint pain or disease. It covers over 100 different manifestations and related conditions, the most common of which are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Arthritis can strike people of all races, ethnicities, and ages. It is most common in people aged 65 and up, affecting nearly half of this population, and it affects more women than men.

Osteoarthritis develops when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones in your joints deteriorates over time. Cartilage is a tough, slick tissue that allows for nearly frictionless joint motion. If the cartilage completely wears away, the bone will rub against the bone.

Osteoarthritis is frequently referred to as a wear and tear condition. However, osteoarthritis affects the entire joint, not just the cartilage. It alters the bone and deteriorates the connective tissues that hold the joint together and connect muscle to bone. It also causes joint lining inflammation.

Nearly 30 years ago, laser therapy was introduced as a non-invasive treatment option for osteoarthritis. Laser therapy, also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT), is a light source that emits only one wavelength of light.

Laser therapies are medical treatments that use concentrated light to treat patients. Light from a laser (which stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) is tuned to specific wavelengths, unlike most other light sources. This enables it to be concentrated into powerful beams. Laser light is so powerful that it can shape diamonds and cut steel.

Lasers in medicine enable surgeons to work with high precision by focusing on a small area and damaging less of the surrounding tissue. You may experience less pain, swelling, and scarring with laser therapy than with traditional surgery. However, laser therapy can be costly and requires multiple treatments.

Is There Any Evidence That Laser Therapy Can Be Effective?

Arthritis symptoms are thought to improve as a result of the photochemical reactions produced by laser therapy. A study published in the Journal of Rheumatology in August 2000 compared the outcomes of laser therapy used to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis treated with laser therapy had a 70% reduction in pain compared to the placebo group. Morning stiffness and hand flexibility improved significantly as well. However, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of joint function, range of motion, or joint swelling (treatment group and placebo group).

There was no effect on pain and insignificant results on joint tenderness, joint mobility, and strength in osteoarthritis patients. In general, the studies compared for osteoarthritis lacked consistency in terms of wavelength, treatment duration, dosage, and site of application.

The Cochrane Review Withdrew Its Report on Laser Therapy

A review of eight clinical trials on laser therapy found that five of them favored laser therapy over placebo for at least one outcome (pain, pain during movement, improved knee range of motion, disease activity, and temporomandibular joint pain). Three other trials did not report benefits associated with laser therapy. This Cochrane Review, however, was withdrawn. The following are the reasons for pulling the review:

  • Some new studies are claiming positive results and Cochrane must review them.
  • Some errors were reported in the data.

The Bottom Line

Discuss the potential benefits of laser therapy for osteoarthritis with your healthcare provider. However, while there has been some positive data associated with laser therapy, studies have been inconsistent in both format and results.

The level of consistency between studies is expected to improve in future studies. In the future, researchers will look for potential anti-inflammatory effects associated with laser therapy.