Lasers are cool. Literally.
October 21, 2009 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find level-headed, researched, sound information on "cold lasers" or "low-level lasers" as medical treatments?

I've been tasked with researching something called "cold lasers" or "low-level lasers" as medical tools, which is apparently used both for post-procedure pain reduction, as well as a "non-invasive" way to achieve liposuction-like weight-loss results. Unfortunately, the latter use means just about everything on the web about the technology comes across as a hard pitch for a sketchy treatment.

As far as I can tell, manufacturers and brand names include Erchonia, Zerona, CoolLipo, and the like.

Just about every mention, whether for pain or weight loss, talk about FDA approval. But I can't find any specific FDA report or listing, nor any details on the laser's approved uses. Is there a handy list anywhere of all the FDA approved things out there? And a search of the "reputable" web resources that I can think of like WebMD have very little to say.

The assertion is that these techniques are so new, that there's limited information available. But that's also what you'd say if you wanted to sell me snake oil.

On the other hand, it appears a lot of "reputable" (though I will put that in quotes), or at least established, clinics that do plastic surgery offer this, usually as one of many options. More than a few local TV stations have done segments, as YouTube demonstrates. But cosmetic surgery as a whole is already a mixed bag -- where a dentist or other outpatient practitioners could easily be moonlighting in liposuction.

This eHow article is just about the only fairly level-headed write up I can find. Everything else merely repeats the same points about how awesome these lasers are. Is there any "there" there, or are people basically switching the price tags on a PowerPoint laser pointer and selling hope?
posted by pzarquon to Health & Fitness (5 answers total)
Best answer: You could start here. This Aetna clinical policy bulletin provides a brief overview of the results of cold laser clinical trials for a number of indications.
posted by timeo danaos at 2:24 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

A pubmed search on "low level laser" yields 513 results. Many of these results are from two journals: Lasers in Medical Science, and Photomedicine and Laser Surgery.
A pubmed search of "low level laser" and "metaanalysis" (which focus on the efficacy of a treatment) yielded 10 results, including the following papers:

Low level laser therapy (Classes I, II and III) for treating rheumatoid arthritis.
Low level laser therapy for nonspecific low-back pain.

I have no expertise in this area, so I can't comment on how legit these technologies are. But looking at this peer-reviewed literature is a good place to start.
posted by googly at 3:08 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: I did some research on this recently for a friend (in veterinary rehab) who was thinking about laying out the cash for it for her practice. Google Scholar gets you some reasonable results. FWIW she decided to wait since the research didn't seem clear yet, and the vendors are certainly making overblown claims. With that said she has colleagues that swear by it.
posted by idb at 4:10 PM on October 21, 2009

Despite coming from the insurance industry, this seems a fairly reasonable review of the limited data out there on cold lasers. If nothing else, it will point you to lots of potentially relevant references.

I do feel obligated to say though that interpreting bad science is not well-suited to the biostatistically disinclined. There is a lot of statistical slight of hand and poor study design that gets glossed over by authors with lots to gain in their discussions/conclusions. The potential for publication bias alone with stuff like this is immense, and there is almost always a very good reason why none of the positive studies end up in high-level journals.

Any "therapeutic" that has somehow weasled around appropriate regulatory bodies and found itself a lucrative market already without having a supporting body of well-designed, peer-reviewed trials to support its use should be cause for concern. I can't emphasize that enough.
posted by drpynchon at 4:52 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should probably just mark every answer as best answer, as they were all helpful. Thanks for helping me see through the noise!
posted by pzarquon at 11:30 AM on October 22, 2009

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