Laser Therapy for Tendinitis
Tendinitis is the inflammation of a tendon, the bands of strong connective tissue that attach muscle to bone, which are often due to a repetitive strain injury (RSI). The condition is common among athletes, manual laborers, and computer users that tend to overuse the tendons through repetitive motions. Tendinitis can also result from an acute injury that stretches the tendon. Laser therapy has recently emerged as an effective treatment for tendinitis. Research suggests it can provide relief from pain and faster healing of tendinitis than conventional treatments, which rely primarily on resting the injured tendon and using ice to reduce inflammation. Laser therapy may also replace anti-inflammatory and pain medications or physical therapy as a treatment for tendinitis.
How Does Laser Therapy Treat Tendinitis?
Repeated straining of a tendon can cause small tears that lead to the inflammation of the tendon. The fibrous tissues of the tendons have a relatively poor blood supply and are therefore slow to heal compared with muscle or bone. The pain, swelling, stiffness, and weakness caused by tendinitis can last for months or even years. Laser therapy reduces the pain and inflammation and appears to promote healing. Laser therapy for tendinitis may reduce the need for surgery and cut the healing time for tendinitis by as much as 50%.
It is not precisely clear how laser therapy treats tendinitis. Practitioners believe that the photons from the laser beam stimulate the cells of the damaged tissues, increasing cell division, circulation, and oxygen supply to the tissues, thereby promoting tissue regeneration. Laser therapy for tendinitis is also said to promote nerve cell regeneration.
What Types of Tendinitis Can Be Treated with Laser Therapy?
Tendinitis is also called tendonitis, tendinosis, tendonosis, or tendinopathy. There are numerous types of tendinitis that may be treated with laser therapy:
- Rotator cuff tendinitis affects the tendons of the shoulder.
- Tendinitis can affect the tendon that attaches the biceps muscle to the shoulder.
- Tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis is tendinitis of the outer tendons of the elbow. Golfer’s elbow or medial epicondylitis is tendinitis of the inner tendons of the elbow. These usually occur in the right elbow of right-handed people and the left elbow of left-handed people.
- Tendinitis can occur in the tendons of the forearm, wrist, hand, or thumb.
- Iliotibial band tendinitis involves the hip.
- Patellar tendinitis or jumper’s knee is an affliction of the tendon connecting the kneecap to the shinbone.
- Achilles tendinitis affects the lower calf or the heel.
Achilles tendinitis, a painful swelling of the Achilles tendon of the heel, is the most common type of tendinitis. The Achilles tendon that connects the leg muscles to the foot is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. Achilles tendinitis is a common injury, especially in athletes. Since Achilles tendinitis does not respond well to anti-inflammatory medications, it may be a particularly good candidate for laser therapy.
What is Laser Therapy?
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) is a type of phototherapy that is also called cold laser or soft laser therapy. It is a non-invasive technique that focuses low-level or low-intensity laser infrared light beams on the injured tendon. Low-level laser therapy for tendinitis differs dramatically from conventional laser surgery that uses hot or high-intensity laser beams to treat cancer or other medical conditions.
Laser therapy for tendinitis is painless. The patient may feel a warm, tingling sensation as the nerves are stimulated. Laser surgery for tendinitis requires at least ten treatments, usually of short duration.
Laser acupuncture is also used to treat tendinitis. With laser acupuncture, the laser beam is focused on the appropriate acupuncture points, eliminating the need for needles. Although there is evidence that acupuncture can be an effective treatment for tendinitis, the evidence for the effectiveness of laser acupuncture is less compelling.
Is Laser Therapy Effective for Tendinitis?
The effects of laser therapy for tendinitis depend on the effective dose of laser light and how far the light penetrates. Penetration through the skin depends on:
- The wavelength of the light used
- The power of the laser machine
- Whether the device produces a pulse or a continuous wave of laser light
- The operator’s technique
In general, the higher the infrared wavelength, the deeper the laser beam penetrates, up to about three centimeters into the tendon. However above a wavelength of 950 nm, the water in the tissue absorbs the light, producing heat and greatly reducing penetration.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and most insurance companies consider cold laser therapy for tendinitis and other conditions to be experimental. However, the FDA acknowledges that laser therapy may be useful for treating pain and inflammation and promoting healing. Studies have found that laser therapy is an effective treatment for various types of tendinitis. A 2008 study found that LLLT, in combination with muscle-stretching exercises, cut athletes’ recovery times from chronic Achilles tendinitis by 50%. Other studies have demonstrated that LLLT reduces inflammation and pain associated with Achilles tendinitis. A 2007 study found that LLLT, in combination with exercises, was more effective than exercises alone in the treatment of epicondylitis.
Is Laser Therapy Safe for Tendinitis?
LLLT is considered to be safe and has no known side effects. However, the laser beam should never be:
- Shone directly into an eye
- Used on the abdomen of a pregnant woman
- Used in the presence of photosensitive compounds
- Applied directly to cancerous tissue
Finding Laser Treatment for Tendinitis
Many physical therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, osteopathic physicians, and other practitioners offer laser therapy. There are also dedicated laser treatment centers that offer therapy for tendinitis.
Healing Light Seminars provides training and research information on the use of laser therapy for tendonitis.
RJ-Laser Research provides some abstracts on laser therapy research.