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The Laser Experience: What it Feels Like and How To Tell It’s Working

Treatments for Chronic Pain

We’ve been asking our clients at Avalon Laser Health in St John’s, NL to describe their experience with laser for 15 years. As we seek to extend this service to new clients, who for reasons of accessibility or geography, can’t come to our clinic, we thought we would share, in a general sense, what our clients have told us. These observations may surprise you!

During treatment with laser, also known as low intensity laser and/or photobiomodulation, the majority of our clients feel nothing beyond the minimal weight of the treatment array and occasionally gentle warmth. Nothing! How different is that from other physiotherapy modalities: the cool of ice; the warmth of a hot pack; the tingling or prickly sensation of TENS, interferential (IFC) and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS); and the outright pain of the latest modalities to market, dry needling and extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT)? 

You may ask how a modality that has no sensation during application can work. To understand that, consider how our bodies need sunlight to manufacture vitamin D or how we can sunburn on a cold, sunny day. There are many other examples I could use, but the essence of the answer is that we don’t specifically feel the effects of the light energy around us, but light energy is essential to health. The light energy used in our laser treatments specifically targets damaged or underperforming cells to restore their normal function. It stimulates delayed healing or accelerates normal healing. Couple pain-free treatment with strong research support…we know laser is a very effective modality for pain relief and restoration of function.

So, if you don’t feel anything during treatment, how do you know it works? 

You need time to determine the effectiveness of laser; but you can tell it heals as pain recedes and function returns. With respect to our own client early responses, I can share the most common:

  • Few clients experience an immediate response, approximately 10%. They will arise from the treatment bed and say…oh, that feels better. Generally, such a rapid response comes as a surprise to them.
  • Most clients, approximately 60%, report feeling better following second, third or fourth treatments. Some of these clients report a slight inflammation in the hours immediately following treatment; and have described it as a bruised feeling or like ‘something is happening’. They generally report clear improvement the following morning. Others just notice, usually upon awakening the following morning, that their joint is looser or they just feel better.
  • Another few clients, approximately 10%, have a more significant flare which may last for up to 2 days following treatment. This does not indicate further harm to the injured area, but it does indicate heightened sensitivity or responsiveness of the client;  and is a signal to modify the treatment parameters. These clients generally do very well with continued treatment.
  • If you’re counting, we lose 15% to 20% of our laser clients before their 3rd or 4th treatment. These clients make me sad, because so many of them have sought out laser because of chronic pain issues, yet they choose to quit before they could know if laser would benefit them or not. 

After the initial treatments, we look for steady improvement across the healing time. As time passes, we observe the healing response; and as pain continues to subside, there is a decreasing need for pain medication, and mobility improves. In general, our clients, especially those with chronic issues, chase improvement, and continue with treatment for as long as they continue to make gains. As a general rule of thumb, when exercise is considered to be an important part of an overall treatment plan, it is added when there’s been an average 60% drop in pain measures. A caveat to the healing experience is that pain relief can be faster than tissue healing; it is important to consider this if there’s a return of symptoms when you start to return to everyday activities. We have observed that, once it is clear that the laser is advancing healing, it can be beneficial to take holidays from treatment; for a month or three, or significantly decrease the frequency of treatment; the optimal scenarios vary. Pain management for chronic and degenerative conditions is a long, generally multi-year, undertaking! The gauge here is return of symptoms. For many progressive pain conditions, such as arthritis, the laser is very useful in managing pain and delaying progression of the disease. In truth, everyone will experience laser a little differently; but the overall effectiveness and reports of satisfaction are very, very high (better than 80%).

The rate of improvement depends upon the type and extent of tissue involved; for instance a simple muscle strain will heal within a couple of weeks, whereas nerve repair can take many weeks, even months. Chronic injuries, in general, are slower to respond. For acute injuries, extensive research demonstrates an average 40% acceleration of healing. For chronic injuries, they have by definition failed to heal well, and laser stimulates or restarts the healing process. In our clinic, our clients with chronic pain issues, including arthritis, are amongst our most satisfied clients. 

Using laser to manage pain, improve mobility, decrease medication use and manage scar formation is an exercise in continuing personal education. It requires active observation of the parameters of injury, such as measures of pain, swelling, mobility;  changing responses to any pain medication you are taking; and observation of activities which provoke symptoms, etc

Our physiotherapists are well educated in both BIOFLEX® laser and muscle and joint function; and can help you Heal Well to Rehab Well – at home. 

We team up with BIOFLEX® Laser, to provide the lasers for at-home use. For anyone who may consider this, we encourage you to consult with your physician (or our nurse-practitioner, if you don’t have a physician). Lasers are not normally part of a physician’s knowledge base. At your request, we can contact your physician to explain the science of photobiomodulation (low intensity laser) and provide supporting literature. With your physician’s support and  script for the rental or purchase of a BIOFLEX® personal laser device, your use of the laser becomes a medical expense, useful for year-end taxes. Some insurance companies may also support rental or purchase of a laser device. 

Whether you are living in Baie d’Espoir, Rose Blanche, Trinity, Fogo Island, Marystown, Petty Harbour, CBS, Goose Bay or downtown St John’s, we can offer Physiotherapy or Physio & Laser in the comfort of your home. Whether rehab is undertaken at home, in the clinic, or a little of both, we would be honored to help you achieve your function and fitness goals.

For more information, call us at 709-753-0155 or email: info@avalonlaserhealth.ca


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