Acupuncture is effective treatment for various psychoemotional and physical symptoms experienced by oncology patients (ie, pain, dry mouth, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, fatigue, anxiety). The mechanisms of action involved in acupuncture have been rigorously studied since the 1970s, and numer- ous neurohormonal processes have been demonstrated.
Read more about acupuncture (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
There are multiple methods that can be used to stimulate acupuncture points (i.e. needles, acupressure, massage, heat, cupping, electrical stimulation, lasers, etc.) Because I am a ‘tech-geek’, I chose to focus of this blog entry on the use of lasers in acupuncture.
Conditions treated with laser acupuncture:
Recently published studies have demonstrated that certain low-energy lasers (also called “cold” or “low-level light therapy” lasers or “LLLT”) appear to be an effective, noninvasive, painless alternative (to needles) for stimulating acupuncture points.
- Reduce fatigue
- Enhance relaxation
- Reduce insomnia
- Reduce asthma symptoms
- Reduce pain
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve mild–moderate depression
- Reduce postoperative nausea and vomiting
- Improve allergic rhinitis
- Reduce postmastectomy limb lymphedema
- Reduce chronic prostatitis symptoms
- Smoking cessation
Cold laser acupuncture is an appealing therapeutic option in situations of immunocompromised states, bleeding abnormalities, and needle phobia. For these reasons, many acupuncturists and physical therapists have incorporated laser acupuncture and cold laser therapy in their practices.
Links for laser therapy research:
Research articles on laser therapy (MEDLINE)
Research articles organized by topic
Fantastic blog on low level light/cold laser therapy (THOR Photomedicine, Ltd)…great website too!
Can you feel the acupuncture laser light?
No. These are low-energy lasers that do not transfer sufficiently high energy to cause a perceptible change in temperature within the tissues.
Is laser acupuncture safe?
Laser acupuncture is safe, but eye protection is recommended. The majority of the lasers used for laser acupuncture are infrared, as this wavelength has the deepest penetration within the tissues (up to 2-3 inches or 60 mm deep) and can easily reach the depths of most acupuncture points. Infrared light is mainly outside of the visible spectrum, so it can not be seen. The normal neurologic response to strong light is to blink or squint as a built-in protective mechanism to prevent retinal injury. Since infrared light can not be seen, there is a greater risk of retinal injury. It is therefore recommended that eye protection (filtered googles) should be used during laser acupuncture treatments to prevent unintended eye injury.
How does laser light stimulate acupuncture points?
Our understanding of exactly how laser light stimulates acupuncture points is not well understood. What we do know is that, like acupuncture needles, cold laser light can cause a host of direct and indirect physiological changes (also known as “photobiomodulation”) both in the tissues in which they are pointed and systemically. There is an extensive body of research reporting on the photobiomodulation effects with cold laser light (examples):
- Enhanced wound healing (ie, increased tensile strength,reduced wound healing time, reduced inflammatory cell migration, increased mitochondrial activity, increased fibroblast cell migration, increased angiogenesis, reduced edema)
- Enhanced nerve regeneration (ie, thicker nerve fibers, more regular myelin layers, clearer nodes of Ranvier with absence of short nodes)
- Increased osteoblast activity and increased osteochondral wound healing
- Increased cellular metabolism (ie, increased adenosine triphosphate production, increased mitochondrial activity)
- Increased blood perfusion (ie, increased nitric oxide synthase)
- Increased angiogenesis (ie, increased vascular endothelial growth factor, endothelial cell proliferation)
- Reduced inflammation (ie, reduced cyclooxygenase-2 messenger ribonucleic acid, reduced myeloperoxide activity, reduced nuclear factor k-B activation, reduced reactive oxygen species)
- Non–opioid-dependent mechanisms responsible for pain control (ie, pain control involves hyperalgesic mediators instead of peripheral opioid receptors)
Is laser acupuncture just another placebo treatment?
Studies have been conducted to examine this question, and it appears that laser acupuncture causes real and measurable effects within the brain.
Among the most convincing studies are those that employ functional magnetic resonance imagine (“fMRI”) to identify and quantify actual changes in brain activity in response to stimuli. To determine if the effects of cold laser stimulation on acupuncture points are detected and processed by the brain (real effect) or not detected by the brain (placebo response), investigators have conducted double-blinded randomized studies using fMRI to examine the brain activity differences in which inactive (fake/placebo lasers) and active lasers are tested on the same acupuncture point.
Since the cold laser light is neither visible to the study subjects (dark, black-out goggles are placed on the patient) nor able to be felt (no heat or energy is perceptible with low-energy lasers), they have no way of knowing (unlike with a needle) if they are receiving laser acupuncture.
The investigators reported that significant brain activity changes were only noted among the subjects who received the laser acupuncture treatments, not in those who received the placebo laser ‘treatments’. This data strongly suggests that laser acupuncture exerts true physiologic effects that cannot be accounted for by a “placebo” response.
Can you teach yourself laser acupuncture?
Absolutely (caveat: read my “final thoughts” below). Unlike with acupuncture needles, laser acupuncture requires no more technical skill than using a laser pointer. Most people can easily learn the point locations of some of the more commonly used acupressure or acupuncture points (located in the same positions).
My favorite treatment is called the “Four Gates.” This is a simple 4-point treatment that is very frequently used to help relieve stress, anxiousness and pain (particularly headaches). There are 4-points involved in this treatment:
- “Large Intestine 4” on right and left hands (on the top of the hand in the web between the thumb and index finger- it is a pressure point, so it is simple to locate)
- “Liver 3” on the right and left feet (on the top of the feet between the 1st and 2nd toe, slide your finger up into the depression just distal to the junction of the first and second metatarsal bones)
The following useful links make it easy to find some of these points:
PointFinder Acupressure Guide Online
How long are each treatments?
That depends on the laser. Higher energy lasers more quickly deliver sufficient dose to the points than lower energy lasers. Typically, treatments take approximately 5-10 minutes to complete. Each acupuncture laser will come with instructions on how long the treatments should take per point.
Where can I buy acupuncture lasers?
There are many devices available on the market. A quick search on the internet will point you in the right direction. These are not your everyday ‘red dot’ (Helium-Neon or He-Ne) laser pointers. The wavelengths of acupuncture and cold laser therapy devices enable much deeper light penetration (up to 60 mm penetration) into the tissues than the He-Ne lasers (minimal penetration beyond 2 mm).Personal acupuncture lasers cost between $100 to well-over $1000 (professional units are more costly).
Here is relatively inexpensive and decent quality portable laser acupuncture unit I recommend:
Do not take away from this article that acupuncture is a simplistic cookbook of points. Acupuncture is only one aspect of an elegant and complex system of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a field that incorporates many therapeutic and preventative modalities (i.e. needles, herbal therapy, moxibustion, cupping, massage, physical activity, dietary recommendations, etc.) and takes many years of training to master.
TCM practitioners select combinations of acupuncture points based on a sophisticated diagnostic process that leads them to an understanding of each individual’s particular diagnosis. For this reason, if treating yourself with acupressure or laser acupuncture does not yield the desired results…get a referral to see a licensed acupuncturist (i.e. L.Ac.). I assure you, the results will be more impressive than you can get on your own. If you own an acupuncture laser, I recommend that you ask your acupuncturist to help you use your laser more effectively. They can teach you to find the precise locations of some of the more accessible to reach acupuncture points (i.e. those on the front or sides of your extremities, abdomen or trunk) that are specific to your problems.
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