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Laser Therapy for Osteoarthritis - Does It Work?

Inconsistent Study Results Cast Doubt on Effectiveness of Laser Therapy

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Updated September 24, 2008

What Is Laser Therapy?

Laser therapy was introduced as a non-invasive treatment option for osteoarthritis nearly 30 years ago. Laser therapy, also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT), is a light source that generates pure light of a single wavelength. The effect produced by laser therapy is not thermal (heat) -- instead, it has to do with photochemical reactions in cells. Studies have produced inconsistent results regarding laser therapy for osteoarthritis.

Is There Any Evidence That Laser Therapy Is Effective?

Through the photochemical reactions produced from laser therapy, arthritis symptoms are thought to improve. A study in the August 2000 Journal of Rheumatology compared the outcomes of laser therapy used to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis treated with laser therapy had 70% reduction in pain compared to the placebo group. There was also significant improvement in morning stiffness and hand flexibility. However, there was no difference in joint function, range of motion, or joint swelling between the two groups (treatment group and placebo group).

For osteoarthritis patients, there was no effect on pain and insignificant results for joint tenderness, joint mobility, and strength. Basically, studies that were compared for osteoarthritis lacked consistency with regard to wavelength, treatment duration, dosage and site of application.

The Cochrane Review Withdrew Its Report on Laser Therapy

In a review of 8 clinical trials dealing with laser therapy, 5 of the trials 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 benefit associated with laser therapy.

However, this particular Cochrane Review was withdrawn. The reasons for pulling the review include:

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

The Bottom Line -- Laser Therapy

If you are considering laser therapy for osteoarthritis, discuss the potential benefits with your doctor. But, you should remember that while there has been some positive data associated with laser therapy -- studies have been inconsistent in both format and results. Future studies are expected to improve the level of consistency between studies. Going forward, researchers are expected to look for potential anti-inflammatory effects that might be related to laser therapy.

Sources:

Low Level Laser Therapy for Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis - A Metaanalysis. Journal of Rheumatology. Brosseau, L. August 2000.
http://jrheum.com/abstracts/abstracts00/1961.html

WITHDRAWN: Low level laser therapy for treating osteoarthritis. Cochrane's Review. Brosseau, L. 2004.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15266461

Low level laser therapy for treating osteoarthritis. Reason for Withdrawal. 2008.
http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD002046/frame.html

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