Sixty to eighty per cent of people suffer from back pain at some time in their lives. Of those who develop acute low-back pain (LBP), up to 30% will go on to develop chronic LBP. The toll on individuals, families and society makes the successful management of this common, but benign condition an important goal.
Low level laser therapy (LLLT) is used by some physiotherapists to treat LBP. LLLT is a non-invasive light source treatment that generates a single wavelength of light. It emits no heat, sound, or vibration. It is also called photobiology or biostimulation. LLLT is believed to affect the function of connective tissue cells (fibroblasts), accelerate connective tissue repair and act as an anti-inflammatoryagent. Lasers with different wavelengths, varying from 632 to 904 nm, are used in the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders.
We included seven small studies with a total of 384 people with non-specific LBP of varying durations. Three studies (168 people) separately showed that LLLT was more effective at reducing pain in the short-term (less than three months), and intermediate-term (six months) than sham (fake) laser. However, the strength and number of treatments were varied and the amount of the pain reduction was small. Three studies (102 people) separately reported that LLLT with exercise was not better than exercise alone or exercise plus sham in short-term pain reduction.
One study (56 people) showed that LLLT was more effective than sham at reducing disability in the short term. Three studies (102 people) compared LLLT plus exercise with exercise plus sham or exercise alone and did not show significant reduction in disability. Two studies (90 people) separately reported that LLLT was not more effective at reducing disability than exercise alone or exercise plus sham in the short-term.
Based on these small trials, with different populations, LLLT doses and comparison groups, there are insufficient data to either support or refute the effectiveness of LLLT for the treatment of LBP. We were unable to determine optimal dose, application techniques or length of treatment with the available evidence. Larger trials that look specifically at these questions are required.