By Sameh Fahmy
Ruptured discs in her neck and fibromyalgia left Sandy Butler with pain so severe she was bedridden for a year. Today she’s back on her feet and credits a little-known treatment with easing her pain and restoring her independence. The treatment, called cold laser therapy, or low-level light therapy, directs light energy at tissue to help it heal. It was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration two years ago for the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome, and chiropractors are increasingly using it to treat back and neck pain, shoulder and knee injuries and other joint pain. The technology hasn’t been embraced by most doctors, but people such as Butler are convinced that it works. "I noticed a great difference the first time, and so I thought, ‘OK, it must be within my brain,’" says Butler, 49. "But within three weeks I was at least 50 percent better, and after about three months I almost have no pain."
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How it works For decades, cold lasers have been used in Europe and Japan to help injuries heal. Since the FDA approved the device for use in the United States, its use has grown steadily. The laser is a wandlike device that is placed over the painful area for 15 to 20 minutes. Richard Albright, a chiropractor who founded the Laser Therapy Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., says it speeds healing by increasing blood flow to the affected area. The most a patient will feel during the procedure is a slight warmth, and some patients experience at least partial relief instantly. "We’ve been doing it at the Murfreesboro office for two years with over 90 percent results on just about everything," Albright says.
Chiropractor Kelly Buchholz, who owns the clinic in Murfreesboro, says the average visit costs $75 per treatment and that patients may require more than one visit depending on the severity of their problem. Most insurance doesn’t cover the treatment, Buchholz says. Although chiropractors are increasingly using the technology, most doctors remain skeptical. Dr. Jeff Watson, assistant professor of orthopedics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says his only knowledge of the laser comes from patients who have tried it and haven’t seen any results. But Watson, who performs surgery to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome, concedes that if a patient had experienced benefits from the technology, they obviously wouldn’t need to come him. Still, he says carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by an increase in pressure within the wrist that puts pressure on a nerve, and he doesn’t see how a laser could help with that. "We don’t employ it, and I don’t know of any hand surgeons who do employ it," he says.
Butler learned about the treatment through a newspaper ad and was skeptical, too. "It sounded nuts," she says. Neck surgery didn’t eliminate her symptoms, and she reasoned that she could either try the therapy or live with chronic pain for the rest of her life. She began her treatments three months ago and underwent three treatments a week for two weeks. As her condition improved, she began tapering off her visits to twice a week and now once a week. Eventually, she hopes to undergo treatment once a month for a year before stopping entirely. But even now, she’s more independent than she thought she’d ever be. Last year her muscles hurt so much that she couldn’t carry her newborn granddaughter. Now she carries her, plays with her and rolls her around in her stroller with ease. But she’s not stopping there. "My dream has always been to ride a motorcycle by myself," she says. "And I’ve been able to do that for the past six weeks." © 2004, Quad-City Times, Davenport, IA. A Lee Enterprises subsidiary.