What Is Photobiomodulation? An expert explains in layman’s terms

Dr Jason Pang is a dentist who has been using therapeutic laser in his dental practice for over 12 years. Passionate about how light therapy can help speed up the body’s natural healing process, Dr Pang is a member of the Australian Medical Photobiomodulation Association and runs the Australian and New Zealand Study Club of the Academy of Laser Dentistry. Having completed two master’s degrees in laser dentistry, he has a deep understanding of how laser therapy can be used to modulate our cellular responses. His aim is to help educate and encourage the use of lasers within clinical practice. Surfers Health Medical Centre health and wellness writer Suvi Mahonen caught up with him recently.    

Dr Jason Pang

Suvi: Can you explain what photobiomodulation is?

Dr Pang: When you look at photobiomodulation, the word, you have photo meaning light, bio meaning cells, and then modulation meaning that you can improve or reduce the effects that the body has on the cell itself. That’s kind of what photobiomodulation is. It’s using that light as a way for the body to repair itself, to reduce the pain, reduce the inflammation and heal.

Suvi: How does the light interact with our cells and what is it actually doing?

Dr Pang: On a cellular level, what happens is the light penetrates into the mitochondria of the cell. The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell because it makes ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which powers all the functions of the cell. And when a cell is stressed, it has a nitric oxide molecule bound to the cytochrome complex of the ATP. So when the nitric oxide is bound to it, it’s kind of like a car engine that’s dirty, so it’s not performing as well. But when the light hits the cell, that nitric oxide molecule comes off it and binds to an oxygen molecule. Then you have the cytochrome complex start to produce the ATP effectively again. So all of the cell signalling starts to work, all of the molecules that it needs to make and then send to the other cells can be made, and communication with the nucleus happens much more effectively. At the same time, that nitric oxide molecule passes out of the cell and acts as a vasodilator, which means that it encourages blood flow into those surrounding areas.

So you have the cell working better, you have reduced inflammation, you have reduced pain, and you have increased blood flow as a result of this nitric oxide molecule coming out. It’s kind of akin to a plant. When a plant is trying to produce energy, it uses sunlight. So photobiomodulation is very much a photochemical reaction, where instead of producing energy for a plant, you get energy at a cellular level, so they can do all the things that they need to do.

Suvi: In what medical conditions do you feel that there is good evidence for benefits of light therapy?

Dr Pang: Last year there were over 600 papers written on photobiomodulation, and there’s well over 700 randomised, clinically controlled trials. Maybe about 150 of those are in humans. Light therapy is being used for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, concussion, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, brain injuries, stroke, depression, movement disorders, multiple sclerosis, as well as autoimmune conditions.

We have patients that we treat with light therapy who have fibromyalgia, postherpetic neuralgia, and we had a patient with trigeminal neuralgia. These are all very difficult to treat conditions, where the patients will be in a lot of pain. Those pains can last from months to years, and if we can treat those conditions really early on, we can prevent them from becoming a long-term problem.   

Once you see the light come back to a patient’s eyes, someone that’s been in pain for such a long time and you can improve that for them and even their mental health, it’s quite amazing.  

Suvi: Why do you think health practitioners have been so slow to utilise light therapy in their practice?

Dr Pang: It’s very easy to just dispense some pharmaceuticals or give a tablet for a certain medical condition, as opposed to light therapy treatments, which sometimes do take a long time to do.

The first time that they started to utilise photobiomodulation was in the late 1960s and the difficulty that they initially had was that they didn’t know how to deliver the correct dose. They didn’t have the device specific to provide the photobiomodulation. But now they’ve got devices that are very specific and you can have one where you can just keep it static over an area and the amount of energy is homogenous over that whole area.

Suvi Mahonen is a Surfers Paradise-based journalist. Her work appears in The Australian, the Australian QuarterlyMamamia and other health and lifestyle publications. Follow her on FacebookYouTube and online art-selling platform Redbubble.