Red Light Therapy for Bulging Disc: Is This an Effective Relief?

Red light therapy is a non-invasive treatment that could be the answer to relieving pain and fostering healing if you’re dealing with the discomfort of a bulging disc. By employing low doses of red light, this therapy aims to diminish inflammation, boost cellular repair processes, and assist in your body’s general recovery.

Treatment that uses light to stimulate the healing process can also be called photobiomodulation.

In this article, we will discuss how red light therapy works, explain all the scientific concepts in a simple manner and outline the benefits. We will touch on the side effects and how to incorporate it into your multidisciplinary approach to chronic back pain. You will walk away being well-informed on whether red light therapy should be a consideration.

What is a bulging disc?

Your spine is made up of vertebrae (bones) and cushion-like pads, called discs, that sit between the bones. The discs are made of a tough outer layer and a gel-like center.

If part of the outer layer of a disc becomes less flexible or weakened it can start to bulge – the way a balloon might bulge if you squeezed it. If the outer layer fully cracks open, allowing some of the center to escape, it is called a herniated disc. Although sometimes these two terms are used interchangeably.

A disc bulge might not have any symptoms. But if it presses on nearby nerves you might experience symptoms that can range from mild discomfort to severe pain. Key signs of a bulging disc include:

  • pain in the back
  • discomfort radiating down the legs
  • numbness or tingling in the legs or feet
  • weakness in the leg or foot muscles
  • difficulty standing or walking for long periods.

Several factors can contribute to bulging discs, such as aging, injuries, and genetic predisposition.

How does red light therapy work?

Red light therapy uses low-intensity red lights to interact with the cells in your body. Think of it like giving your cells a gentle wake-up call. This therapy activates the mitochondria, which are the tiny powerhouses inside your cells.

The mitochondria produce something called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which you can think of as the energy currency for your cells. More ATP means your cells have more energy to repair themselves and perform their functions better. So, when red light therapy increases ATP production, it helps your cells heal and work more efficiently.

By using various wavelengths, including infrared light, this therapy penetrates deeply into the skin to reach injured cells, enhancing their recovery. Red light therapy helps reduce inflammation and relieve pain, making it useful for managing conditions including:

  • herniated discs
  • osteoarthritis
  • muscle injuries
  • joint pain.

This therapy essentially energizes your cells, helping them function better and speeding up the body's natural healing processes.

What are the benefits of red light therapy?

By using red light treatments regularly, you can experience relief from the pain caused by bulging and herniated discs. This allows you to return to your daily life without needing invasive procedures, which is beneficial if you have chronic back pain.

Using different wavelengths of light that penetrate deeply into your skin, this therapy reaches damaged cells to speed up their recovery. By boosting the activity in your muscles, red light therapy helps you recover more quickly from injury-related fatigue and provides lasting pain relief by enhancing your body’s natural healing responses to inflammation.

Pain relief

Red light therapy helps relieve pain by triggering natural healing processes in your body. One of the main ways it does this is by increasing collagen production2. Collagen is a protein that gives your skin and tissues strength and support. When red light therapy boosts collagen levels, it helps repair and strengthen the affected areas.

This therapy also reduces inflammation, which is your body's response to injury but can cause pain and discomfort if it lasts too long. By calming this inflammation, red light therapy helps your body heal more smoothly and reduces pain.

Cellular repair

Red light therapy helps your body heal by boosting the activity of your cells' powerhouses, known as mitochondria. This therapy uses specific wavelengths of light to stimulate these mitochondria, converting light energy into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy your cells need to function. With more ATP, your cells have more resources for repair and rejuvenation. One study conducted on flies and mice in 2015, found that red light therapy improved ATP levels and mobility3.

By increasing ATP production, red light therapy enhances your cells' ability to repair and regenerate. This means your cells work more efficiently, speeding up the natural healing process in your body.

Reducing inflammation

One of the advantages of red light therapy is its ability to reduce inflammation around your discs1. While inflammation is your body's natural response to injury, it can increase your pain and slow down healing when it persists. Red light therapy helps by easing this inflammation, reducing pressure around the disc area, and supporting your recovery. Think of it as turning down the heat to allow your body to heal better.

Increasing blood circulation and muscle recovery

Red light laser therapy promotes the growth of new capillaries in the treated areas. This boosts blood circulation, which:

  • enhances blood flow
  • increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your cells
  • speeds up the removal of waste from your cells.

This improved circulation helps your body heal faster, aiding in wound repair and optimizing cellular health.

This therapy also helps your muscles recover in several ways, including:

  • reducing stiffness and soreness after physical activity
  • easing muscle tension and improving joint flexibility
  • relieving pain
  • speeding up the overall healing process.

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What are the side effects of red light therapy?

Red and near-infrared light therapy is a medically recognized method for alleviating pain that doesn’t carry the threat of severe negative side effects. By triggering the body’s inherent healing mechanisms, this form of therapy avoids the dangers posed by ultraviolet radiation. Some common side effects include:

  1. Eye safety: The light can be harmful to your eyes if you look directly at it. So, you should always wear special glasses to protect your eyes during the treatment.
  2. Skin reactions: Some people might notice their skin gets a little red, feels tight, or gets irritated after the treatment. It's usually temporary and goes away on its own.
  3. Feeling uncomfortable: You might feel a bit of warmth, tingling, or mild discomfort while you're getting the treatment or right after. This is generally normal and not too serious.
  4. Headaches: A few people might get headaches after using the therapy. It's not very common but can happen.
  5. Delayed reactions: Sometimes, the area where you had the treatment might feel more sensitive or painful a bit later. This should also go away on its own.
  6. Health conditions: If you have certain medical issues or take specific medications that make your skin very sensitive to light, you should avoid this therapy. It's always a good idea to check with a doctor first.
  7. Using too much: If you use the therapy too often or for too long, it can cause more serious problems like burns or skin damage. It's important to follow the recommended guidelines.

It's important to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new treatment, especially if you have existing health issues. This ensures the treatment is suitable for your condition, maximizing its benefits while minimizing potential risks.

How is red light therapy undertaken for a bulging disc?

Red light therapy can be administered by healthcare professionals such as doctors or physical therapists, or you can use high-quality LED panels at home. It's recommended to have sessions lasting 10 to 20 minutes, three to five times a week. Keeping this frequency helps maintain steady therapeutic benefits, leading to better and faster outcomes.

When choosing a red light device for home use, consider its quality, warranty, and ensure it emits the correct wavelengths with sufficient power density over a large surface area. This will maximize the effectiveness of your treatment.

How long until I see results from red light therapy?

When it comes to the results and timelines, you can expect to feel pain relief from red light therapy within several days to a few weeks after starting your treatments. While some people might notice improvement right away, it's important to stick to regular sessions to see significant and lasting results. Think of it like growing a plant; consistent care is key to seeing progress.

How do you incorporate red light therapy into your treatment program?

Red light therapy should be part of a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to managing back pain. This means not only addressing the physical aspects of back pain but also considering the psychological factors.

Exercise & physical therapy

Understanding your body and your pain is the first step in your recovery journey. This awareness helps you use physical activity and exercise to ease your symptoms and strengthen your body over time.

Physical therapy is especially effective for managing chronic back pain. A physical therapist can create a personalized exercise plan that will strengthen and support your whole body as well as any particular areas of concern.

Along with physical therapy, incorporating mind-body practices like yoga or tai chi into your routine can enhance physical flexibility and strength, reduce stress, and improve your mental wellbeing4.

Stress management

Research indicates that stress can influence the small cells within the discs of your spine5.

Stress can also increase your perception of pain. Regularly practicing mindfulness such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and relaxation techniques can help reduce the pain and muscle spasms associated with a herniated or bulging disc.

Diet

Managing your weight is not just about the number on the scale. If you have concerns about your weight and diet, it’s essential to discuss them with your doctor or a nutritionist. Reducing the pressure on your spine can improve your condition.

Eating a balanced diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods is beneficial for your spine. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and walnuts, along with a variety of fruits and vegetables, can help reduce inflammation and promote healing. Staying hydrated is also crucial. Dehydration can decrease the height of your discs and increase the risk of disc bulges.

Medication as an enabler

To manage the symptoms of a bulging disc, pain relief can be quite effective. Anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, help reduce swelling and inflammation around the nerve roots. Analgesics, such as paracetamol, can help control pain levels. Muscle relaxants may also be used to ease any muscle spasms.

Ergonomic adjustments

If your workstation feels uncomfortable, it can lead to pain. Adjusting your workspace to be more ergonomic can help. However, studies show that it is more important to move regularly than to sit or stand perfectly straight. If you work at a desk, take regular breaks to walk around. If you have a standing desk, alternate between sitting and standing. If you are on your feet a lot, shift your weight from one side to the other and take breaks when possible.

Retraining your pain response

Retraining your pain response begins with identifying what makes your pain worse. This could be stress, negative thoughts, or certain activities. Once you recognize these triggers, you can work on changing them. This might involve eating healthier, improving your sleep, staying active, or learning new ways to think about and respond to pain. With time and practice, you can teach your brain to handle pain differently. This can make the pain less intense and more manageable in your life.

Sleep

Getting good sleep can be challenging when you're dealing with back pain, but it's crucial for recovery. Here are some tips to enhance your sleep and overall wellbeing:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Aim for eight hours of sleep and keep your bedtime and wake-up time the same each day.
  • Limit naps to ensure they don't affect your nighttime sleep.
  • Stay active during the day to help you fall asleep more easily at night.
  • Establish a bedtime routine that avoids screens. This helps your mind unwind before sleep.
  • Make your bedroom a peaceful environment. Keep it dark and quiet.
  • Monitor your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening, as it can linger in your system and disrupt sleep.
  • Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before bedtime, as they can interfere with your sleep.
  • Incorporate relaxing activities outside of sleep. This can help you manage your symptoms and sleep more effectively.

When to seek medical attention

If your symptoms are new, or if you are experiencing persistent back pain due to disc herniation that does not improve with time or lifestyle changes, it is crucial to consult a healthcare provider.

At MoreGoodDays®, we have developed a program based on scientific research to help you manage chronic back pain. Our approach aims to clear up common misunderstandings about back pain. We focus on finding the root causes, identifying triggers, and teaching you how to change your body's response to pain using neuroplasticity principles.

We offer personalized coaching and various tools to help you manage pain, support your mental health, and improve your overall quality of life.

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