Red Light Therapy: A Treatment for Skin, Muscles, and Joints

If you’ve ever been in a sauna or hot tub, you know how good it feels to be steeped in warmth. But did you know that certain sources of warmth (such as those from wavelengths of light) can help heal your body, too?

Red light therapy is a healing treatment that’s growing in popularity due to its ability to positively affect skin, muscles, and joints. Here’s a look at the many health benefits of red light therapy, plus how this treatment could potentially help you live better.

What Is Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy, or RLT, is a light treatment used for a range of healing purposes. The use of non-thermal light for rejuvenation is called low-level light therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation (PBM).

Red light therapy is primarily used for skincare and anti-aging purposes, yet it has also been used to accelerate wound healing. Red light therapy is similar to infrared light therapy in that it uses light wavelengths to promote healing. However, red light therapy differs from infrared light treatment because you can see the red color of the light. Red light therapy is also often referred to as near-infrared light, as the two are related, but not one in the same.

Red light was first seen as a helpful healing mechanism after scientists studied its positive impact on plant growth. Science professor Keith McCree, who launched a NASA-supported research project in space, discovered that different colors of light have different impacts on photosynthesis.

His discovery produced the McCree curve, which shows that red light is effective at stimulating plant growth and flowering. This research led scientists and health experts to test red light therapy on humans.

In the same way the red light helps plants grow, red light also helps human cells grow. This is especially helpful for promoting healing among areas of the body that are damaged due to injury or illness. Harnessing the color red and its powerful wavelengths of light has since been proven to be an effective treatment for cell regeneration.

How Red Light Therapy Works

An older woman looks at her face in the mirror

Red light therapy is a form of low-level light therapy, or phototherapy, that can promote full-body healing and rejuvenation. This photomedicine penetrates the skin to affect the mitochondria, the part of the cell responsible for creating and supplying the body with adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Since ATP is essential for energizing cells, red light therapy in turn helps keep the cells healthy and strong so they can ward off pain and disease.

Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Dermatologists and other skin care specialists use red light therapy to promote skin rejuvenation and treat skin problems and blemishes. The specific wavelength of red light makes it effective at penetrating through the skin to influence the reparation and growth of cells.

For example, red light therapy has been proven in clinical studies to reduce signs of aging and sun damage, such as fine lines, by promoting collagen production. An increase in collagen also helps with skin roughness and unevenness on the face and body, including cellulite, acne scars, and sun damage from tanning.

A growing body of research shows how red light therapy is an effective addition to treatment options available in dermatology and skincare. One randomized controlled trial proved that non-thermal LED light, including red light, improved collagen density, skin texture, and overall complexion in participants. These results were echoed in a study on hormone-related alopecia, or hair loss, which proved that red light therapy is an effective treatment for helping regrow hair in men who’d lost it.

Red light therapy has also been scientifically proven to support the reduction of oxidative stress — the result of imbalances between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Since free radicals can be extremely harmful, damaging the body in the form of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer, maintaining a balance is essential for optimum health.

Red Light Therapy and Pain

Close up on an older woman's arthritic hands

In addition to helping patients improve skin, hair-growth, and oxidative stress, red light therapy has been proven to reduce joint pain, especially in people with rheumatoid arthritis. According to Joovv, a company that creates light therapy devices, light therapy helped reduce pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis by up to 70%, making it an effective therapy for pain relief. Red light therapy also helped arthritis patients reduce stiffness when waking in the morning and improve mobility in joints, such as the wrist.

Red light therapy has a positive effect on people with arthritis because it promotes blood flow to painful areas and produces anti-inflammatory effects. As researchers reported, “light therapy could change the inflammatory course of arthritis, tending to accelerate its resolution through immune cell photobiostimulation.”

In other words, red light therapy holds great promise as a treatment option for people with both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, primarily due to its ability to reduce inflammation.

Red Light Therapy and Wound Healing

In addition to helping with skin conditions, inflammation, and pain management, red light therapy has also been shown to foster greater wound healing. A study on rats showed that both blue light and red light helped with elements of wound healing. Keratin-17, a protein associated with cell regeneration, was specifically elevated in red light therapy whereas the blue light therapy enacted no change in it.

Side Effects of Red Light Therapy

A young girl wearing sunglasses in front of a red light therapy screen

​Red light therapy has minimal side effects. But since it is light and it does warm the body, some people have reported minimal burns and blistering, similar to what would happen as a result of a sunburn.

This reaction can usually be prevented if the time in light therapy is limited and the patient doesn’t fall asleep. It may also be necessary to wear eye protection when undergoing red light therapy, as this can prevent any damage to the eyes that increased light exposure can cause.

People with diabetes and other conditions that affect the eyes should take extra precautions before trying red light therapy. It’s always best to talk to your doctor about potential risks. People undergoing red light therapy may also need to dress in protective clothing to prevent burns or blisters and keep UV exposure at a minimum.

The low risk associated with red light therapy is one reason why it’s grown in popularity among dermatologists, rheumatologists, and other medicine experts.

Red Light Therapy for Healing and Regeneration

Red light therapy has been helping patients see results across a wide range of areas, including skincare, hair regrowth, and wound healing. One reason RLT has become a popular healing therapy is because it’s quick and minimally invasive compared to other surgeries or intensive treatment.

Scientists have proven that red light therapy is an effective way to help the body’s own healing processes, which in turn promotes rejuvenation and longevity for people with a range of skin, joint, and full-body conditions. Whether you’re looking for a reduction of fine lines or you’re struggling with knee pain, red light therapy is an effective treatment option that can help you on the journey toward long-term health and happiness.

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