In 1967, a Hungarian scientist using lasers to treat skin cancer in mice noticed that the hair on those mice (which had been shaved as part of the experiment) grew back faster than normal. This observation triggered research into the effects and possible health benefits of applying low levels of laser light to the human body at specific frequencies.
Although it is unclear to scientists exactly how laser treatment works on the body, they have seen effects at the cellular level, including a reduction in the chemicals related to the body's inflammatory response (such as prostaglandins) and an increase in cellular energy (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate or ATP), which can lead to an upsurge in cell proliferation. These observations have led to low-level laser therapy (LLLT) being used in the treatment of pain and wound healing, and there is some degree of evidence to support this particular application.
While conventional medicine largely acknowledges the potential benefit of LLLT for the treatment of pain and tissue damage, more recent claims that laser therapy can be used to treat allergies have been met with a high degree of criticism. What's the theory behind using lasers to treat allergies, and is there any evidence that lasers may be effective in this area?
The theory behind laser treatment of allergies is that each allergen (a substance that can trigger an allergic reaction, such as pollen) works at a specific harmonic frequency that can be imitated electronically, causing the body to believe that it is in contact with the real allergen. If a patient is allergic to a particular allergen, then this will cause the immune system to produce a small allergic reaction. When the allergic reaction is triggered, lasers are used to stimulate specific points on the body, in much the same way as acupuncture, in order to strengthen the body and dampen the immune response to a manageable level.
Scientists, including many prominent specialists in the treatment of allergies, say that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this process and worry that claims are misleading. The California legislature has expressed concern that patients with life-threatening food allergies could be hurt or killed if they believe they have been cured by medically unproven laser treatments. In response, the California state Board of Chiropractic Examiners prohibits licensed chiropractors from using lasers for allergy treatments. However, some allergy clinics specializing in laser therapy report a 70% success rate, and there is a growing amount of anecdotal evidence from satisfied customers. Medical researchers, however, put this down to the power of the placebo effect.
In response to a proposed bill banning the treatment of allergies by chiropractors that was dropped by the California legislature, the California Chiropractic Association (CCA) stated that it didn't object to a restriction on the use of laser therapy in this area. However, it should also be noted that chiropractors successfully treat allergies using a variety of other techniques, including changes in diet and lifestyle, both of which have proven to be effective.
Other states have yet to take the same legal road as California, so laser therapy for allergies may still be available in some parts of the country. Although there remains no scientific basis for the treatment, advocates point out that it does have a history of success in treating allergies, and this, together with the fact that it is a non-invasive therapy with no known side-effects, may mean that it will remain a potential option for allergy sufferers for some time to come.