Health, Shining A Light On Pain

The marine's voice had an edge of urgency. As he explained to physical therapist Ben Freeman of Castle Rock, Colo., in January, his unit was about to ship out to war. But his upper back was so sore that he was hardly in fighting trim. He had tried all the usual remedies--chiropractic, massage, electric stimulation. But he had never seen anything like the eight-inch black plastic disk Freeman had on his shelf. The device, from a company called Light-Force-Therapy, bristled with 192 red and infrared light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Freeman placed the device directly on his back for 15 minutes and then physically manipulated his neck and shoulders for another 15. The Marine came back four days later for more. In just two half-hour sessions, he noticed more improvement than he had in three years of other therapies.

Light can heal. The ancient Greeks knew that. They put sick patients in the sun to aid the curative process. But modern technology has dramatically increased the possibilities, giving us lasers and light activated drugs. Therapeutic LEDs, the latest addition to the list, use light to penetrate deep into tissues and boost the body's own natural healing processes. Studies are showing that these new devices can help ease chronic pain, speed wound healing and prevent acute mouth ulcers in certain cancer patients. Even the Defense Department and NASA are studying LEDs as potential aids to healing injuries on the battlefield and in outer space.

Unlike the LEDs in your digital clock, these devices use just one or two wavelengths of (visible) red or (invisible) infrared light that have been selected for their therapeutic properties. Dr. Harry Whelan, professor of neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has shown that a specific red wavelength boosts a key energy-producing enzyme in cells. In one published study, he found that LEDs developed for NASA sped wound healing in a U.S. Navy submarine crew by 50 percent. Other researchers have shown that certain infrared wavelengths stimulate the release of nitric oxide in blood vessels, causing them to dilate. This in turn increases circulation to a wounded area, improving delivery of oxygen and nutrients and the removal of wastes. That may be why LEDs seem to relieve ailments from muscle strains to shin splints.

LED devices may even help reverse diabetic peripheral neuropathy, or nerve impairment in the limbs--long thought to be irreversible. In a study last year in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, doctors treated 49 subjects with an infrared-only LED device from Anodyne Therapy LLC. After just six 30-minute sessions, 48 of the --patients showed improvement. Similarly, says Denver podiatrist Dale H. Carnegie, one of the study's authors, the Anodyne device can help heal diabetic foot ulcers that have festered for months. Ultimately, he says, this could spare patients with diabetes from having limbs amputated.

For several hundred dollars, companies like BioScan and Light-Force-Therapy sell LED home units over their Web sites ( and Home units are fine for minor aches and sprains. But for serious conditions, consult a doctor or therapist--for access to powerful professional models and additional treatments that may improve outcome. Anodyne's Web site ( lists 200 centers where its therapy for neuropathy is available.

Let there be light.