UPDATE: The below article is interesting, and still mostly valid, but for the most up to date information on laser and lymphedema please see our 2018 review: Lymphedema Laser Therapy Inches Closer to Clinical Utility.
Low level laser therapy is sometimes marketed as a miracle cure. It’s currently used by a variety of practitioners to treat an enormous list of seemingly unrelated conditions, but little data exists to support many of the claims. Always on the look-out for a new tool, we were interested in seeing if there were any data on using laser to treat lymphedema. Interestingly, we found some, and the findings were generally positive. So do we now use laser to treat lymphedema at our clinic? No, and here’s why:
Low level laser therapy (sometimes called “cold laser”) has grown in popularity in recent years for the treatment of an expansive range of conditions, from depression in dogs, to rheumatoid arthritis in humans. Despite this surge in interest, high quality clinical evidence supporting its use has not kept pace. Nor is there a clear understanding of how laser may work to accomplish the sometimes ‘miraculous’ medical outcomes it purportedly produces.
A small collection of studies have been undertaken to evaluate laser therapy for lymphedema, and positive effects were observed. The best study to date was a well-designed double-blind and placebo controlled trial (Carati C.J., et al. Treatment of postmastectomy lymphedema with low-level laser therapy: a double blind, placebo-controlled trial. Cancer. 2003 Sep 15;98(6):1114-22). In this study patients were treated with either laser or placebo (fake laser) in two blocks of treatment. The first block consisted of 3 treatments a week for three weeks, followed by an 8 week break, and then another block of treatments the same as the first. The authors observed that 31% of patients experienced a clinically significant reduction in arm volume 3 months after laser treatment compared with only 3.8% of patients in the placebo group. At first glance this sounds promising. However, from the perspective of a clinician, this isn’t the whole story. In fact, the study offers little to support laser use clinically:
1 There is a clear conflict of interest. The primary author works as a consultant for the company that produces the laser used in the study, and the study was also funded in part by that company.
2 Efficacy in 1/3 of patients means lack of efficacy in 2/3 of patients. While anything is better than nothing in the absence of a viable alternative, in the case of lymphedema there is a highly effective and clinically supported alternative: Combined (or “Complex”) Decongestive Therapy (CDT).
3 Although the study did demonstrate efficacy in 31% of patients, their data also demonstrates that on average there was NO significant reduction in limb volume in the laser treatment group relative to limb baseline measurements. While the authors note that maintaining swelling to near-baseline levels is better than continued limb volume growth, the clinical goal (which is possible with CDT) is a reduction in lymphedema rather than simply stasis.
4 No positive effects were observed after a single block of therapy (9 treatments), instead only occurring after two blocks (18 treatments). This regime is rather intensive from a patient convenience and cost perspective, especially given the relatively modest positive outcomes observed.
5 The handful of studies that have followed up on this work tend to have employed different study designs, and many have methodological concerns that limit the strength of their conclusions. Many of these did not find statistically significant benefits. The best designed follow-up study utilized an even more intensive regime (3x per week for 3 months) and appeared to demonstrate a significant improvement in limb volume over fake laser when performed in conjunction with lymphedema exercise therapy and education.
6 A sound explanation for how laser therapy could be producing the positive effects observed is absent, and remains absent to date.
7 For this research to be truly clinically relevant, laser therapy should be examined in conjunction with CDT, in order to determine if it could be used to enhance the gains that are possible using the gold standard approach to treatment.
Positive results for a new technique can be exciting, and definitely warrants additional research. As clinicians we have a responsibility to thoroughly evaluate the tools and techniques we introduce into our practices. Positive clinical data and glowing marketing claims do not necessarily make for better patient outcomes, or cost-effective patient care. It is important to keep in mind that many positive results are not repeated, and many more are contradicted by follow-up studies. With very few exceptions, a robust literature base is usually necessary before strong conclusions can be drawn, and current clinical practice responsibly modified.