Just like human medicine, treatments in the veterinary world are advancing. New techniques and therapies crop up regularly, giving pets and their owners more options. Laser therapy is one of those that you may have heard about and it’s becoming more commonly seen in general practice. But what is laser therapy and does it work? Let’s explore this further.
What is laser therapy?
A special light, or ‘laser’, is used to target areas of the body that need a bit of extra help to heal. This most commonly includes wounds (surgical or through trauma), tendon injuries and arthritis. It is a non-invasive therapy which helps to encourage the body’s natural healing mechanisms. The most common type used for this purpose in veterinary practice is low-level laser therapy (LLLT) or ‘cold laser’ therapy. It is also known by some as red-light therapy or photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT).
How does laser therapy work
Laser therapy uses low-frequency light energy, which is cold/non-heating, to help kickstart healing in an area of inflammation or trauma. The light helps to trigger biochemical changes within the targeted cells. This occurs when photons emitted from the laser affect receptors within the cells of the body. This causes chemical changes which can bring about faster healing.
This may seem strange, except for when you consider the effect that light has on the cells in plants. Energy from photons is converted by plant cells into chemical energy – a process known as photosynthesis. So, it’s not that far-fetched that light may be helpful in animal cells too.
Laser therapy is said to help through the following mechanisms-
- Increasing blood flow to the affected area (vasodilation), thereby supplying extra oxygen and healing factors
- Relaxation of targeted muscles
- Endorphin release
- Suppression of pain receptors in nerve tissue
- Reducing inflammation
- Enhancement of cell energy production
Most lasers can be adjusted to varying frequencies to target different problems and tissue types in the body. The laser is collimated (or targeted) so that it concentrates solely on the target area and leaves surrounding tissues unaffected.
When might your vet suggest laser therapy?
Laser therapy can be used in a variety of cases including –
- Muscular injuries
- Tendon injuries
- Wound healing (surgical and traumatic)
- Nerve injuries
- Reducing scar tissue
- Skin infections
- Spinal issues
Quite often laser therapy is an adjunctive treatment which means it is used alongside other therapies, as part of a multi-pronged approach to a problem.
What happens during a laser therapy appointment?
Treatment often requires several sessions, at regular intervals. Your vet will want your dog to be as comfortable as possible, so may allow your pet to lie on a comfy bed or blanket, depending on where their injury is. Your dog will need to wear some special safety goggles, to protect his eyes during his treatment, as will any people in the room with him too. Some lasers can cause damage to vision, so this protective eyewear is essential. Dogs that are not compliant may require sedation to have their treatment. But this is not the case for most patients.
The probe containing the laser will be placed over the affected area for a short period of time, approximately a minute. Your dog shouldn’t feel any discomfort during this process. The exact length of your appointment will depend on the number of areas being targeted.
Are there any side effects of laser therapy?
There are no known side effects of laser therapy (assuming the goggles are worn), so it is thought to be a relatively safe treatment. This makes it a good choice for most animals, particularly those that may not be suitable candidates for surgery or certain medications.
Treatment in the vicinity of a pregnant animal’s uterus (womb) was previously not advised, but this is now believed to be relatively safe too.
The only situation where problems may arise is if laser therapy is used inappropriately. Areas that have cancerous tissue should not be treated as the therapy could cause cell growth and proliferation in this area, encouraging tumour growth. Also, areas that have active bleeding should not be treated until clotting has occurred as the vasodilation that occurs from laser therapy may worsen this.
As mentioned previously, eyes can be damaged by accident while using lasers so protective eyewear is always advised.
Is laser therapy effective?
The Veterinary general consensus is probably that more research needs to be done, as while there may be some potential benefits to laser use this is inconsistent and more proof is needed. The current evidence is conflicting with many studies reporting no benefits at all, such as this review exploring the use of laser therapy for open and surgical wounds. It suggested that there was no real advantage shown when using lasers in these types of cases.
However in vitro (cells in laboratory conditions) seem to respond favourably to laser treatment, so perhaps better clinical trials are needed in our real-life patients to help back this up.
There is also growing anecdotal evidence that lasers are helpful, with many owners and vets claiming to see improvement in their patients with their use. As lasers are very unlikely to do any harm, there appears to be little to lose by giving it a try if your vet suggests this type of treatment for your dog. Just ensure that you manage your expectations and continue giving your pet any prescribed medications alongside his therapy.
Hopefully, you now understand a bit more about laser therapy which might be helpful if your vet has advised it. Side effects are minimal to none if used appropriately and it can be a useful ‘extra tool in the toolbox’ when trying to help your pet to heal faster. However published evidence in the veterinary field is hard to come by at present, and more studies are needed.
Always ask your vet if you have any concerns about laser therapy and its use in your pet’s condition.