Background: Osteoarthritis (OA) affects a large proportion of the population. Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT) is a light source that generates extremely pure light, of a single wavelength. The effect is not thermal, but rather related to photochemical reactions in the cells. LLLT was introduced as an alternative non-invasive treatment for OA about 20 years ago, but its effectiveness is still controversial.
Objectives: To assess the effectiveness of LLLT in the treatment of OA.
Search strategy: We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, the Cochrane Musculoskeletal registry, the registry of the Rehabilitation and Related Therapies field and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register up to January 30, 2004.
Selection criteria: Following an a priori protocol, only controlled clinical trials of LLLT for the treatment of patients with a clinical diagnosis of OA were eligible. Abstracts were excluded unless further data could be obtained from the authors.
Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers independently selected trials and abstracted data using predetermined forms. Heterogeneity was tested with Cochran's Q test. A fixed effects model was used throughout for continuous variables, except where heterogeneity existed, in which case, a random effects model was used. Results were analyzed as weighted mean differences (WMD) with 95% confidence intervals (CI), where the difference between the treated and control groups was weighted by the inverse of the variance. Standardized mean differences (SMD) were calculated by dividing the difference between treated and control by the baseline variance. SMD were used when different scales were used to measure the same concept (e.g. pain). Dichotomous outcomes were analyzed with odds ratios.
Main results: Seven trials were included, with 184 patients randomized to laser, 161 patients to placebo laser. Treatment duration ranged from 4 to 12 weeks. Pain was assessed by four trials. The pooled estimate (random effects) of three trials showed no effect on pain measured using a scale (SMD: -0.2, 95% CI: -1.0, +0.6), but there was statistically significant heterogeneity (p>0,05). Three of the trials showed no effect and two demonstrated very beneficial effects with laser. In another trial, with no scale-based pain outcome, significantly more patients reported pain relief (yes/no) with laser with an odds ratio of 0.05, (95% CI: 0.0 to 1.56). Only one study found significant results for increased knee range of motion (WMD: -10.62 degrees, 95% CI: -14.07,-7.17). Other outcomes of joint tenderness and strength were not significant. Lower dosage of LLLT was found as effective than higher dosage for reducing pain and improving knee range of motion.
Reviewers' conclusions: For OA, the results are conflicting in different studies and may depend on the method of application and other features of the LLLT application. Clinicians and researchers should consistently report the characteristics of the LLLT device and the application techniques used. New trials on LLLT should make use of standardized, validated outcomes. Despite some positive findings, this meta-analysis lacked data on how LLLT effectiveness is affected by four important factors: wavelength, treatment duration of LLLT, dosage and site of application over nerves instead of joints. There is clearly a need to investigate the effects of these factors on LLLT effectiveness for OA in randomized controlled clinical trials.