By Dr. Becker
Laser is actually an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” Laser beams are different from other light sources in that they provide focused energy that produces small points of intense power.
The light from a laser can cauterize (burn), cut and destroy tissue in a very precise manner. Used at lower power, called low-level laser therapy, lasers have the ability to alter the function of cells without heat and without destroying those cells. This is known as biostimulation, and it can be used to treat a variety of conditions affecting the joints, nerves and soft tissue in animals.
In recent years, use of lasers in both human and veterinary medicine has increased in the treatment of conditions that were once managed only with drugs and surgery. In many situations, laser procedures are much less invasive than the traditional therapies they replace. They can also reduce or eliminate the need for drugs in certain cases.
So when it comes to laser therapy for animals, why is a perfectly legitimate healing modality still considered by some to be trickery perpetrated primarily by the holistic veterinary community on gullible pet owners and animal caretakers?
Misconception #1: There’s a lack of reliable research on the effectiveness of laser therapy
One reason for this mistaken belief is a history of negative published studies on laser therapy since its discovery over 50 years ago. This is primarily due to the incorrect use of laser equipment affecting study outcomes. Several parameters, including dosing and laser output testing, have significant bearing on the results achieved.
Fortunately, the World Association for Laser Therapy now provides standards for the design and execution of clinical studies, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses. A systematic review is an examination of all available high-quality research evidence relevant to a specific research question. Systematic reviews of high-quality randomized controlled trials are essential to the advancement of evidence-based medicine.
Meta-analysis is a statistical technique used to combine findings from independent studies, for example, combining data from two or more randomized controlled trials to evaluate the effectiveness of a particular healthcare technique. The purpose of meta-analyses is to provide an accurate estimate of the effect of a specific treatment.
Another criticism of laser research is that it is of poor quality and can’t be used to establish the effectiveness of laser therapy.
This may have been the case at one time, but no longer. A number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses have demonstrated the benefit of laser treatment for a variety of conditions. These include pain and stiffness caused by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis1, neck2 and shoulder3 pain, tennis elbow4, Achilles tendinitis5, and inflammation/ulceration of the lining of the digestive tract caused by chemotherapy.
Misconception #2: No guidelines exist on how to perform laser treatments
Along with the misperception that there’s a lack of credible research on the use of lasers, another criticism is that no guidelines are in place for treatment, making it a guessing game to determine the right laser dose.
The World Association of Laser Therapy has published a list of recommended treatment doses for a number of pain problems. And while the recommended treatments are for humans, they are derived from clinical trials and studies on animals with similar pathologies.
The recommendations for veterinary use of lasers are closely aligned with these guidelines.
In addition, laser therapy clinical trials are being conducted at some veterinary schools. Colorado State University is conducting a randomized, controlled clinical trial on laser treatment for snake bites in dogs.
At the University of Florida, researchers completed a study on laser therapy for dogs with intervertebral disk disease. Study results showed that after a spinal cord injury and surgery, dogs who received laser therapy walked sooner, had no medical complications, and were discharged earlier. In fact, the results were so dramatic they are now using lasers with every dog presenting with that condition.
Misconception #3: Laser treatment is nothing more than expensive heat therapy
Another argument against laser treatments is that they are nothing more than very expensive heat therapy. This is simply incorrect.
Not all lasers warm the tissue and perceptions of heat being applied depend on equipment settings. In any event, heat isn’t how lasers heal. They heal by creating a photochemical reaction in tissue known as photobiomodulation. Photobiomodulation describes the changes that occur after light enters mitochondria and triggers beneficial physiologic changes.
Laser therapy affects a variety of tissues in the body, including neurons. Studies in the use of lasers to promote nerve regeneration6 have shown exciting results in bringing a return of function after acute spinal cord injury in rats.
Misconception #4: There is no science to explain how laser therapy works
Finally, perhaps the weakest criticism of laser therapy is that many people, including vets who use it regularly in their practices, can’t explain the science behind it.
Many practitioners can’t explain the scientific rationale behind treatments used in traditional veterinary medicine, either -- for example, corticosteroid therapy. Yet steroids, which can have significant long-term side effects, are prescribed every day by MD’s and DVM’s.
The science of laser therapy is available. It’s just difficult for some to grasp – especially when the drugs-and-surgery medical model is all that is taught in the majority of vet schools.
As more veterinary schools expand their curriculums to include laser therapy training, more DVM’s will come around. Lasers, properly applied and dosed, provide significant benefits and expand veterinarians’ options for treating patients effectively, often eliminating or reducing the need for surgery or drugs.