Acupuncture without needles? How is that possible, you might ask. Well there are many different types of acupuncture. So, in my practice, whilst I offer traditional Chinese Medicine acupuncture I am also aware that many people are put off from trying acupuncture due to a needle phobia. For this reason, for some time I have been using low level laser therapy for patients with needle phobia. This is a type of acupuncture that uses a therapeutic laser instead of a needle. Laser therapy has been the subject of many studies to establish its efficacy. Though study data is sometimes conflicting, this 2015 systematic review discusses the effect of laser acupuncture for a wide range of musculoskeletal disorders.
Musculoskeletal disorders are those conditions that affect the structures involved with movement of the body. This includes problems such as injuries or aches and pains of muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. These symptoms are very common and affect most people at some point. In fact, research suggests that 1.7 billion people worldwide are affected by musculoskeletal problems.
In my post, Which therapies for chronic pain? I discuss a study that compares different complementary therapies for chronic pain. That study shows that acupuncture is a popular and effective treatment for chronic pain, such as musculoskeletal problems. Nevertheless, needle phobia is a common and understandable concern.
As an acupuncturist I do prefer to use acupuncture needles rather than the laser. However, anecdotally I have found that laser therapy provides similar results to using needles. So for the needle phobic, acupuncture does not have to be ruled out as a treatment option.
What’s more, the systematic review I mentioned above agrees. In fact the researchers confirm that whilst laser acupuncture does not produce any “needling sensation” it does an elicit an effect on the body at a cellular level. Furthermore, they say, that recent evidence provides support for an anti-inflammatory and pain inhibiting affect of laser therapy.
The systematic review analyses a multitude of studies that looked at laser therapy for the treatment of pain, 33 in all. Some that compare the effectiveness of laser therapy versus placebo. And, some that compare laser therapy to ultrasound or other treatments. The studies involved different types of pain, for example, trigger point pain, low back pain, chronic neck pain, shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, knee osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and whiplash. Yet, researchers report that while the studies provide mixed results, two-thirds of them showed positive benefits with laser acupuncture. The remaining third of the studies were either inconclusive or showed no effect.
The researchers make an interesting point. Their analysis included both short and long term follow up data. Yet, studies were more likely to report benefits of laser therapy when patients were followed up in the longer term. So, studies that only reported results in the short term may have underestimated the effect of the laser treatment.
So, based on this systematic review researchers say that laser acupuncture is effective for improving musculoskeletal pain in the longer term.