Laser acupuncture works – but how?

By Jan Tunér

The idea of using laser light instead of needles on acupuncture points has been around for more than 40 years. Widely used, but rather distrusted. And no wonder – needle acupuncture in the first place is not widely accepted. So if the scientific documentation for needle acupuncture is shaky, what to say about laser acupuncture? The fundamental mechanisms behind acupuncture are still not too well known or accepted, for that matter. And it is improbable that a light could have similar biological effects as a needle. At least that is a reasonable opinion. Now, the mechanisms behind laser acupuncture are still fairly unknown, but some light has recently been shed upon them (see link:

So here is the situation: The scientific evidence is said to be lacking and the possible mechanisms are not explained. Fortunately, the situation is changing, and 31 positive RCTs of good quality is not a bad start. The meta-analysis below is performed by a qualified group of researchers and does provide solid evidence for the phenomenon of laser acupuncture:

Law D, McDonough S, Bleakley C, Baxter GD, Tumilty S. Laser acupuncture for treating musculoskeletal pain: a systematic review with meta-analysis. J Acupunct Meridian Stud. 2015;8(1):2-16.

Laser acupuncture has been studied extensively over several decades to establish evidence-based clinical practice. This systematic review aims to evaluate the effects of laser acupuncture on pain and functional outcomes when it is used to treat musculoskeletal disorders and to update existing evidence with data from recent randomized controlled trials (RCTs). A computer-based literature search of the databases MEDLINE, AMED, EMBASE, CINAHL, SPORTSDiscus, Cochrane Library, PubMed, Current Contents Connect, Web of Science, and SCOPUS was used to identify RCTs comparing between laser acupuncture and control interventions. A meta-analysis was performed by calculating the standardized mean differences and 95% confidence intervals, to evaluate the effect of laser acupuncture on pain and functional outcomes. Included studies were assessed in terms of their methodological quality and appropriateness of laser parameters. Forty-nine RCTs met the inclusion criteria. Two-thirds (31/49) of these studies reported positive effects, were of high methodological quality, and reported the dosage adequately. Negative or inconclusive studies commonly failed to demonstrate these features. For all diagnostic subgroups, positive effects for both pain and functional outcomes were more consistently seen at long-term follow-up rather than immediately after treatment. Moderate-quality evidence supports the effectiveness of laser acupuncture in managing musculoskeletal pain when applied in an appropriate treatment dosage; however, the positive effects are seen only at long-term follow-up and not immediately after the cessation of treatment.

The results of the meta-analysis seem to be a sound scientific support for the actual existence of all the reported effects. But knowledge about the mechanisms is still scant. And ADP/ATP connection has been suggested and would make sense. But there are still many remaining questions. Is wavelength important? Which is the best energy? Does it matter?

Advancement in laser acupuncture has been seen in recent years. The “laser needle” idea makes it possible to apply high energies more precisely on the small acupuncture points. Further to that, different wavelengths can be chosen for superficial and deeply located points, and it is now possible to irradiate many acupoints at the same time, as done in needle acupuncture.

Summing up: Laser acupuncture is not placebo but similar to needle acupuncture. Enough documented to be used, especially considering the fact that it is non-invasive and pain free. Knowledge about the mechanisms will come with time. Just knowing that it is real is for the time being good enough.