Does "laser therapy" help you quit smoking?
August 26, 2006 1:03 AM   Subscribe

My mother's paying $300 for "laser therapy" to quit smoking. Is she getting ripped off?

My mom is going here for something called "laser therapy" to help her quit smoking. Apprently they shoot a low-power laser beam at your ears, nose, hands, wrists and forearms and this (somehow) removes your desire to smoke. It sure sounds like snake oil to me, but does anyone know for sure?

The web site itself is pretty useless, with a total of three paragraphs explaining how it works. It claims that pointing low-energy lasers at the body accelerates the healing process. Which, even if true, doesn't seem to have anything to do with smoking. Another site says it has to do with the body's endorphin release schedule, but doesn't say how it corrects this.

My mom says she has friends who tried it and claim it worked wonders for them. So I suppose it could be an effective placebo at least. Anyone have any reliable information about this?
posted by molybdenum to Health & Fitness (19 answers total)
Clinical Policy Bulletin that more or less says cold laser therapy is B.S. This is an interesting new twist, the most common claim seems to be that laser therapy treats rheumatoid arthritis.

(via Quackwatch)
posted by randomstriker at 1:20 AM on August 26, 2006

I quick pubmed search renders, Alternative Methods of nicotine Dependance Treatment, an article by Koszowski B, Goniewicz M, and Czogala J. I can't access the full text, but their literature review seems to support the notion that such alternative therapys as laser treatment are effective because they help increase the motivation of the smoker who already wants to stop smoking. So it won't really work if the smoker doesn't want to quit, but it helps mentally to keep the willing smoker on the track of smoking.

The acceleration of the healing process is probably crock. I'm no expert, but all two of the pubmed articles I can find summaries for show no concrete benefits for laser therapy. It might be useful to bolster her mental resolve to quit, however. Whether your mother is getting ripped off or not is really dependant on how you view the treatment. Is it effective? Can you find something cheaper to motivate her to quit or to put her faith in? And perhaps you should ask this: what is the ultimate cost of long term smoking?
posted by Mister Cheese at 1:21 AM on August 26, 2006

Articles in PubMed are generally negative with regards to laser therapy as an effective treatment for stopping smoking. They tend to say things like...
The analysis showed that effectiveness of the methods is often disputable and the main advantage of those methods is a support effect to patient who wants to give up smoking. Thus, it seems that alternative methods may be applied in combination with pharmacological ones because they increase the smoker's motivation to stop smoking and at the same time increase the chance to overcome the addiction in general. [1]
... or ...
There is no consistent evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation, but methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Further research using frequent or continuous stimulation is justified. [2]
posted by RichardP at 1:24 AM on August 26, 2006

Ah, thanks RichardP. I'll use that format next time I dip into the well of PubMed. Those were the exact same articles I was looking at.
posted by Mister Cheese at 1:44 AM on August 26, 2006

My husband did it four weeks ago and is smoke-free since. Honestly, I think the best incentive is "Holy crap, I just spent $300 to quit, so I'd better not smoke and waste the money."

All they promised was that the treatment would help get him through the 72 hours of physical withdrawal from nicotine; they did acknowledge that beyond that, the addiction was behavioral/psychological and it would be his responsibility to deal with that part.

OTOH, it seems to be the same concept as accupuncture (focusing on pressure points that affect cravings), which doesn't have the same quack reputation.

I don't know. We have spent $300 on stupider stuff, and I think we've broken even by now in savings on smokes and Nicorette (which he used at his smoke-free work).
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:32 AM on August 26, 2006

It sounds like a placebo effect that you have an incentive to believe in.
posted by danb at 4:54 AM on August 26, 2006

Quitting smoking is all in your head -- there is no need for anything but resolution. If you can't quit, it isn't the strength of the drug, it's the weakness of the resolution. The light and the cost don't do anything but help certain people strengthen their resolution that this time can and must be the last time. Psychologically, the laser = modern, high-tech, powerful, clean. And $300 for a friggin light massage = it must be real or it wouldn't be that expensive, I'd better not fuck around. (Just as acupuncture = tried and supposedly true, I heard that wise old sages swear by it, never killed anyone that I know of, looks kinda like lying on a bed of nails and we all know how cool that is, wait till I tell my buddies, etc. If it works at all, it works in your head.)

If your mother intends to continue the treatment no matter what, tell her you heard great things about how powerful and effective the laser treatment is. That will help to strengthen her resolve. After she quits (statistically unlikely, but time will tell), let her know that you knew it was bullshit but you wanted to help her psychologically rather than let her spend that time and money fruitlessly.

But the next time she wants to do something like this, tell her to give you the $300 and you'll hook her up with some powerful illegal stuff that will really do a job on her. Then give her a bottle of sugar pills (if she's not diabetic, of course) and donate the money to your mother's favorite charity or maybe the cancer society. Then work on her psychologically. Ad lib. She's your mother, so you should know exactly what buttons to push.
posted by pracowity at 5:14 AM on August 26, 2006

An off-label use for the antidepressant Welbutrin is assisting in stopping smoking. Apparently pretty effective.

It acts on a different neurotransmitter system (dopamine) than the most popular antidepressants (SSRI's).

If she's having trouble quitting, there are legit methods and she'd probably be better off investigating them.

FWIW, I smoked and quit for 15 years... peaked at a pack a day. Until I finally gave it up at 30, (22 years ago), I could quit for a year and if I relapsed, be back at a pack a day in a few days. Now, I have no urges at all, BTW. It does eventually stop. Hardest parts are a few days, a week, several months into not smoking. Absolutely critical to make lifestyle, emotional, and personal habit adjustments to make it stick.

The big label tobacco companies formerly added junk to the cigarettes that increases the addictive effects. A recent aquaintance told me that when he switched to 'heath food cigarettes', i.e. American Spirit, he spontaneously decreased his consumption radically, making it easier to quit. Anectdotal, of course.
posted by FauxScot at 7:26 AM on August 26, 2006

ANYone thinking of using Wellbutrin to assit in the effects of quitting smoking needs to be VERY VERY VERY CAREFUL (even under a doctors care and approval.) Wellbutrin effects the brain chemistry, is made as an anti-depressant and so can send a normal level brain into a manic episode (possible dangerous one followed by a deep depression.) It is one of those end of commercial speed talk warnings type of chance, that is small chance, but it can happen, it is real. I've seen it, it aint pretty, time in psych hospital (shame, stygma since the doctors will say it might have just been in you all along), months having your brain slowly re-balance. Not fun.

Not to say it cant be a good tool (quitters feel the loss of the nicotine and a drop in dopamine and feel slight depession which in turn hurts/lessens the resolve to quit), but the drug needs very close monitoring to see if the person taking it is feeling "too good", overly creative, overly active, moody. These are signs of ramping up to a break episode and stopping the drug or halfing (or quartering) the dose backs it down.
posted by Kensational at 8:05 AM on August 26, 2006

If she believes it, and then that belief, right or wrong, leads to her quitting, then she was not ripped off. Nevertheless, I can not understand how this can be anything more than placebo.
posted by caddis at 8:21 AM on August 26, 2006

Hypnotherapy, telephone quit lines, Zyban, and Chantrix are all proven significantly more effective than placebo. Placebo is significantly more effective than quitting cold turkey. Has she already considered or tried more effective methods? If not, she should.
posted by owhydididoit at 9:57 AM on August 26, 2006

It's a placebo...and an expensive one at that. Tell your Mom to save her money and instead spend a week volunteering at a hospice. You're bound to meet people there with final-stage cancer of the lungs, mouth or esophagus. That way, she'll be helping people and finding all kinds of good reasons to kick a habit that kills.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 10:41 AM on August 26, 2006

Thanks mefi hivemind! I was thinking the same thing as pracowity: I should tell her it works, even if it's BS, so at least there's a chance her $300 is well-spent.

She's already on medication for being manic-depressive (I forget which one), so I don't think she can safely add more drugs to the cocktail.

There are probably more legimate methods for her to try (she's already tried many of them), but I suspect the aura of science surrounding the word "laser" probably does more to help her resolve than anything else. That's probably why these places are still in business.
posted by molybdenum at 10:52 AM on August 26, 2006

Don't, for pete's sake, encourage her to throw her money away like this! Actively participating in a delusion like this is just wrong.

Quack treatments like this stick around because of people like you and your mom. What will happen when she successfully quits (through her own willpower, not bullshit laser therapy)? Well, she'll go and tell everyone she knows how great the laser therapy is. Then her friends try, and these scam artists keep raking in the dough.

Your mom has the ability to quit on her own, so encourage her to do so. Don't perpetate these lies and encourage pseudo-scientific bullshit.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:35 PM on August 26, 2006

errrr - should be - "Don't promote these lies"
posted by chrisamiller at 12:37 PM on August 26, 2006

What's wrong with the delusion? The delusion is part of the treatment.

The placebo effect is very, very strong, and very under-utilised in medicine in general -- doctors and similar folk are too quick to declare "this doesn't really work" when something is, in fact, working perfectly well entirely through the placebo effect. In this case, the fact that the placebo is very expensive acts to strengthen the effect.
posted by reklaw at 2:41 PM on August 26, 2006

The placebo effect is ... very under-utilised in medicine in general

Not so. It is used every time someone consciously takes a drug. An aspirin works in part because you believe it will work. If someone slips you an aspirin secretly, it isn't going to be as strong.

The problem is that someone is lying for lots of money. If the lie and money are a necessary part of the treatment (as I also suggested above), at least give the money to an organization that needs it. Getting rich on lies about medical treatment is bad business.

It is also important to reveal the lie after the treatment has worked.
posted by pracowity at 4:19 PM on August 26, 2006

This turns out to be sort of an ethical dilemma as much as a scientific one.

Here's the thing: my mom's the kind of person who, like many Americans, has almost no grasp of how science works, and yet reveres Science (with a capital 'S') itself as a source of truth. The fact that the therpay has a science-y word ("laser") in it is what makes it sound real. And that real-ness is what will make the placebo work, if it works at all.

The thing is, that attitude (revering Science without understanding how it works) is sort of antithetical to science in the first place. That's one reason it sort of galls me for her to be going to this place (the other is that some charlatan is making $300 off her).

However, knowing her world-view, I can totally see this therapy working, at least temporarily. She's tried lots of different techniques to quit before, and always starts up again. But I can easily see this working at least as well as any other: she'll probably quit for six months and then start up again. So from a pragmatic perspective, either this charlatan gets her $300, or cigarette companies do (more, actually).

My gut reaction is still to advise her against it, but it may actually be better for her if I support it.
posted by molybdenum at 9:19 PM on August 26, 2006

As many have surmised, it seems strongly like the placebo effect. Buy a $10 laser pointer, tell her you found out "how it works", and give her the "treatment" for free.
posted by SpookyFish at 8:33 AM on August 27, 2006

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