Humans are light-sensitive beings. Whether it comes from the sun, a laser or a fluorescent bulb, light can affect our bodies and minds in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand.
If you believe actor Robert Wagner, a little light can banish pain. Wagner is the television pitchman for Light Relief, a hand-held device equipped with 59 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that flicker with pulses of blue, red and infrared light. The device also has four heat settings.
The Food and Drug Administration approved Light Relief for marketing in 2007. The agency didn't express any opinion about whether the device actually worked to relieve pain. Instead, it merely decided that the product was "substantially equivalent" to products already on the market.
Light Relief is just one of several light gadgets marketed for pain relief. (Other examples include Bioptron and Warp 10, which each sell for several hundred dollars.) Light Relief can be ordered online or over the phone for about $80.
On the TV ad, Wagner says Light Relief is "natural," "safe" and "incredibly effective." The ad goes on to show people jogging, golfing and, perplexingly, playing Scrabble. A voice-over claims that Light Relief is "great for back pain, arthritis, tension headaches, bursitis, tennis elbow, hip and joint pain, muscle strain, spasms, stiffness and tendinitis. It can even help relieve stubborn chronic pain."
Sylmark Inc., the Lake Balboa-based company behind Light Relief, didn't respond to several requests for comments.
The bottom line
It's no secret that a little warmth can soothe a sore spot. There's also solid evidence that red and infrared light can calm inflammation and relieve pain even if there's no heat involved, says Dr. Raymond Lanzafame, editor-in-chief of the journal Photomedicine and Laser Surgery and a surgeon with a private practice in Rochester, N.Y. Lanzafame has also served on FDA panels for evaluating medical devices.
Still, in Lanzafame's view, it's unlikely that the lights from Light Relief can provide significant pain relief. Though red and infrared light can reduce compounds that cause pain and inflammation, that happens only if light falls in "the sweet spot" -- a very specific wavelength at a very specific intensity, he explains. He has not tested Light Relief but says he doubts that the product has the fine-tuning necessary for real results. "Cheaper LEDs tend to have a very broad bandwidth," he says.
As for blue light, it hasn't been shown to reduce pain, Lanzafame says, though blue lights have shown promise for killing bacteria, including germs that cause acne.
"The TV ad is misleading right out of the gate," Lanzafame says. The ad boasts that Light Relief is cleared by the FDA and can relieve arthritis, tension headaches and other painful ailments. But the FDA never approved Light Relief for the treatment of any particular condition. By law, the company isn't allowed to claim that its product can "diagnose, cure or prevent any disease."
Chukuka Enwemeka, a light therapy researcher and dean of the School of Health Professions, Behavioral and Life Sciences at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, N.Y., agrees that red and infrared lights can potentially reduce pain. He also says that light therapy helped him avoid surgery for disc trouble in his neck two years ago.
But Enwemeka also believes that it would take a highly trained professional to use light therapy properly.
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