Low-Level Light Therapy: Untangling Myth From Reality

Low level light therapy
  • Low-level Light (Laser) Therapy is used for both skin rejuvenation and fat reduction.
  • This cosmetic procedure stimulates cell regeneration by making it easier for mitochondria to turn nutrients into energy.
  • Although it has a grounding in science, many experts question LLLT’s effectiveness.

Imagine a device that can stimulate cellular regeneration with nothing more than a little light. There are no burns, no incisions, nothing but healthier, happier skin. Now imagine that this device can also be used to treat pain, reduce unsightly scars, and even remove fat. Sound too good to be true?

You’re not the first person to wonder if Low Level Light Therapy (LLLT) is more myth than miracle. Scientists and medical professionals have long debated the efficacy of this treatment, and the discussion is far from over.

Some studies do support various applications of LLLT, and many of those applications directly impact certain plastic surgery procedures and their healing processes. As such, let’s take a moment to delve into the history of the practice and further investigate those studies that speak to the impact Low-Level Light Therapy has on plastic surgery outcomes.

Introducing Low Level Light Therapy

First, let’s unravel some of the terms you might come across when researching this practice. Low Level Light Therapy is also sometimes called Low-Level Laser Therapy. Conveniently, the two are reduced to the same acronym (LLLT). You may also find it referred to as cold laser therapy, low-energy laser therapy, low-intensity laser therapy, low-power laser therapy or low-level laser treatment, but these latter terms tend to be less common.

LLLT does pretty much what its name implies. It applies very low-power lasers, sometimes an infrared or near-infrared laser, to the surface of the skin in the attempt to elicit change at the cellular level. In rare cases, a light-emitting diode (LED) is used instead of a laser.

LLLT has been employed to varying effect on a wide variety of conditions. Most notably, it’s used to treat chronic pain resulting from conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s also been used to address chronic pain from unspecified sources, like chronic neck and lower back pain. Plus, it’s reported cellular regenerative properties are alleged to help wounds heal and treat skin conditions like acne and psoriasis.

The overall reception is mixed. Many consider LLLT nothing more than alternative medicine with any positive results likely attributed to the placebo effect. However, several studies suggest that certain elements of the therapy’s applications may actually have some merit.

A Grounding in Science

If you really want to understand LLLT, it helps to look at its history. To its credit, this therapy is not something dreamed up by so-called pseudo-scientists looking to cash in on an alternative treatment. Rather, it’s origins lie with a Hungarian physician named Endre Mester, who practiced medicine in the mid-20th century.

Mester first discovered the regenerative effect of low-power lasers by accident when he was trying to recreate an entirely different experiment. He initially intended to use a high-power laser to reduce tumor sizes in mice. However, the laser he used was faulty and as a result, its intensity was much lower.

Needless to say, the laser did not reduce the tumors in the mice. But Mester noticed that the hair on the mice, who had been shaved in preparation for the experiment, was growing back at different rates. The hair of those subjected to the laser was growing faster than the hair of the mice in the control group. Mester concluded that the low-power laser was responsible for the difference.

After discovering the stimulatory effects of the laser on hair regrowth, Mester continued his research into the effects of low-power lasers, later learning that low-power helium-neon (HeNe) lasers were effective in helping skin wounds heal faster in mice. He called this process laser-biostimulation, which soon gave rise to what we now call LLLT or photobiomodulation.

What’s Really Happening

That depends a little on who you ask. Low Level Laser Therapy varies depending on the type of laser and its intended use. Not all LLLT practices have sufficient scientific support and it’s unclear how these lasers are able to reduce pain.

Let’s take a closer look at the most accepted and supported form of LLLT and how it might be effective in stimulating cellular regeneration.

Picture a cell. Think back to your high school biology class and remember what it looks like. There’s the membrane on the outside and the nucleus floating somewhere near the middle like the yolk of a fried egg. But wait, what are those bean shaped things floating around the nucleus? Those are mitochondria and they are the “powerhouses” of the cell. In other words, they are what give the cell energy.

Mitochondria gives the cell energy in much the same way as your body does. They break down nutrients and turn them into energy, making them an important part of the cell metabolism. This energy is then used to help the cell perform a variety of cellular mechanisms or functions, including repairing itself.

How do mitochondria accomplish this? They use something called the electron transport chain (ETC). All you really need to know is that this chain involves certain enzymes and some of those enzymes, such as cytochrome c oxidase, are photosensitive. In other words, they react to light.

In theory, when these low-level lasers are applied to various parts of the body, they stimulate these photosensitive enzymes and subsequently the entire ETC process. They make it easier for mitochondria to turn nutrients into energy and thus for the cells to use that energy in repairing themselves. Now we come back to our initial statement: LLLT is intended to stimulate cellular regeneration.

How It Can Help in Plastic Surgery

Given that it’s said to aid in cellular regeneration, there’s little wonder why LLLT might hold some appeal for those interested in plastic or cosmetic surgery. But how exactly can it help with specific procedures? We delved into studies regarding the use of LLLT in a variety of capacities and found three key ways in which it can enhance the effects of certain procedures and aid in recovery.

Skin Rejuvenation

Let’s start with the simplest and most direct way in which LLLT can be of use to plastic surgeons and their patients. If, as the scientific theories suggest, LLLT aids in cellular regeneration, then it stands to reason tissue repair could be on its list of uses. LLLT has also been linked with stimulating collagen growth for similar reasons.

Finally, a 2005 study looked at the effects of LLLT using LEDs on skin rejuvenation in 300 patients. It also examined similar effects using pulsed light and other types of lasers in another 600 patients and concluded that the LEDs were most effective. We can take away from this that there is some scientific support for the use of some forms of LLLT in skin rejuvenation.

Treatment of Keloid and Hypertrophic Scars

Along similar lines, LLLT has been linked to the reduced visibility of certain types of scars. Given the risk of scarring that comes along with any major surgery, it makes sense that this application could be of interest to plastic surgeons and their patients. A 2010 study sought to evaluate the effects of low-level lasers on scar formation. It concluded that LLLT was effective in not only reducing the appearance of existing scars, but preventing the formation of keloid scars to begin with.


We bet you weren’t expecting to see this on the list. It may sound strange, but LLLT has been used for fat reduction, fat removal, and cellulite reduction. These effects were first introduced in 2000 at the Proceedings of the World Congress on Liposuction in Dearborn, Michigan. The researchers successfully used LLLT to reduce fat without increasing the tissue’s temperature and thus risking burns. This noninvasive body contouring approach was presented as a potentially safer option, or an accompaniment, to traditional liposuction.

These same researchers continued studying the application of LLLT in fat reduction and its ability to aid in other liposuction procedures. They noted that the lasers caused the cells to open and allow fat to move from inside to outside the cell. A 2011 study by another group of researchers further explored the topic and also concluded that LLLT was effective in safely reducing fat. That being said, not all researchers have come to the same conclusion, suggesting still more studies need to be conducted.

» If you would like to discuss your options and learn more about different types of liposuction, ask a doctor on our forum.

Critics and Caution

Although some compelling studies exist on the efficacy of LLLT for skin rejuvenation and fat reduction, proceed with caution if you’re interested in moving forward with this procedure. The research is young and best practices are still being developed.

That being said, most of its critics don’t believe LLLT is completely ineffective when put to these specific uses, only that more studies are required before anyone can be certain. What’s more, to date the practice has been shown to essentially have no side effects when administered properly.

Medical professionals caution against using LLLT devices on the thyroid as it may compromise thyroid function. They also caution against using these laser devices over any lesions or growths that are potentially cancerous because it’s been suggested LLLT could stimulate the continued growth of existing cancer cells, sometimes called cell proliferation.

Finally, always wear protective eye covering when being treated with laser and/or light therapy as certain lasers can damage your retinas.

The Takeaway

So? What’s the verdict? Is LLLT a real treatment, or isn’t it? Can it really aid the post-surgical healing process or enhance the biological effects of certain types of plastic surgery?

This is something we can’t yet say for certain. Many researchers have explored the potential of LLLT and some have concluded there could be some merit to this practice when it comes to tissue regeneration and fat reduction. It does seem plausible that some LLLT could be an effective addition to many plastic surgery treatments, particularly when it comes to preventing scars.

However, as it presently stands, still lacking sufficient evidence, it’s too early to know for sure if Low Level Laser Therapy is an effective treatment option.

» If you’re considering low-level light therapy but aren’t sure if you’re the right candidate, use our doctor directory to find a professional near you and discuss your options.

Related Posts