Veterinarians are constantly searching for effective and safe means of pain relief to use on our canine and feline companions. After all, acute or chronic pain is one of the most common reasons owners bring their pets to the veterinarian. If pain medications do not provide enough relief, veterinarians will typically recommend adjunctive therapies like acupuncture or hydrotherapy. However, in the past few years a new treatment modality for pain has been developed in the form of laser technology. Already used extensively in human medicine, therapeutic lasers have been gaining more and more popularity among veterinarians. This is due to their ease of use, lack of side effects, and fast and effective results.
So how can something like a laser beam actually help to heal tissue and eliminate pain? Lasers function by energizing molecules and then releasing this energy as light at various wavelengths. Each specific wavelength defines the role of that laser. For instance, surgical lasers emit beams of light at a certain wavelength that allows them to cut tissue and cauterize bleeding vessels. Therapeutic lasers release light from the infrared spectrum at two slightly different wavelengths, and the light is sent in two different patterns, pulsed waves and continuous waves. The continuous light waves decrease inflammation by increasing blood and lymphatic flow and by absorbing excess water from tissues. The pulsed light emissions alleviate pain by interrupting the transmission of pain signals from the damaged tissue to the brain. By combining both these waves of light into one beam, the therapeutic laser can provide dual modes of relief for sore tissues.
Because it acts to both control pain and inflammation, laser therapy is a perfect tool to treat arthritis, back pain, and any other joint, bone or soft tissue pain. It can also expedite wound healing. Many veterinarians use the laser post-operatively to decrease inflammation around surgical incisions. Such treatment can decrease an animal’s urge to lick at an incision. Although these are probably the most common uses, other potential uses for the laser include treatment for vasculitis (inflamed blood vessels) or for certain metabolic diseases such as kidney disease.
Treatment schedules typically depend upon what disease or ailment is being treated and how the patient is responding to each treatment. For instance, arthritic patients usually begin with one laser therapy session per week. If the therapy was prescribed for wound healing, then the interval between treatments may be shorter. Regardless of the reason for the treatment, the actual session usually takes less than twenty minutes and is performed by trained veterinary technicians or assistants. Owners are welcome to accompany their pets during the treatment session, but all humans in the room, and the patient wear special protective eye glasses as the laser can damage eye tissue. The technician moves the laser over the body part in question for a short period of time. Duration of treatment sessions vary with each patient and depends upon how the patient responds to the treatment. Some patients will improve with only one treatment while others will need multiple treatment sessions. However, the effects from each treatment are additive so the patient should continue to improve with each therapy session.
Often used as adjunctive treatment to medications, laser therapy offers many advantages. While it should not be used on cancerous tissue, in pregnant animals, or in tissue that has been treated recently with steroids, laser therapy carries no known side effects. Therefore, it is safe in patients with concurrent renal and liver disease who are not candidates for the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications. It is also a good alternative for patients who are difficult to medicate. The treatment is non-invasive, and human patients tell us that it’s painless.
Each year, new technology and medications are being developed to medically treat and care for our animals’ aches and maladies. Fortunately, a lot of the technology developed for human medicine, such as lasers, can be adapted to work in veterinary medicine as well. These new avenues of treatment offer veterinarians, and clients, options and alternatives to give our animal companions the best quality of life. After all, they’re part of our family too.
Originally published in the Nov/Dec 2012 Issue of Pet Connection Magazine.