Photobiomodulation Therapy (PBMT) – The performance & recovery benefits behind it
I am not an athlete, not even close. Unless there is a sport for the longest time lying on a couch watching television. And I know I am not alone, as I know a lot of “sports enthusiasts” spend half their waking hours staring at a screen yelling at someone for doing the work for them. Sports is work.
Competitive athletes don’t work themselves to the point of exhaustion because they just want to have fun. It’s their job. And though I would certainly like to have well developed biceps, bulging pectorals and washboard abs for days, these are things I know I will never have while typing on this computer munching on chips.
Using PBMT as an athlete
One would then think how lucky you would be to maintain an employment that allows you to have these while being paid (either that or be a Marvel actor). But the truth is professional athletes are as hard on their bodies as those working manual labour and repetitive activities are constantly gnawing at your joints that often, retirement from sport comes early in life.
Sports injuries account for one of the major uses of PBMT as described by the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery1.
It reflects the basic and proven indications of PBMT which is relief of inflammation, pain and soft tissue repair, so there is no question of its’ effectivity for sports injuries, and proof is in the number of sports teams that use PBMT in one way or another for athletes after a game. Controversial, though, is whether PBMT can be used to enhance performance (to the point of raising the question as to whether PBMT should be allowed in athletic competition by regulatory authorities)2.
To think that PBMT can be compared to performance enhancing steroids or taking erythropoietin to boost red blood cell count seems logical, but does it really?
A common question I receive is from someone who bought one of our personal devices and asking how to use it for, say, the liver, or the heart, or the brain, or even as specific as the vagus nerve.
The question they would receive from me is…why? What’s wrong with your brain? And oftentimes I get the answer, nothing, I just want to maintain it’s health. But why would you want to fix something that is not broken? So why not learn a new language or explore a new culture? Get to know someone different from yourself? Eat healthy? Exercise? Meditate? Nope.
Most people just want to live long stress-free without encountering change. The concept that the meaning of life is to live through the various challenges it bring and not just to live long is a non-starter. I just want the vitamin pill or the device that permanently allows me to sit on my couch while watching these athletes run for their lives without worry. Life is never that simple.
Life is never black or white, right or wrong, or us or them. The truth is, not all of us are gifted with the perfect genes that fit your typical western standards or views of life. All of us will eventually get old, get sick or get something that you don’t want and oftentimes, we get to blame the new cat, the new dog, the new neighbour that moved in that doesn’t look like us, or a new vaccine. It’s just life.
A lot of studies, and studies on studies, and studies on studies about studies have come out concerning the use of PBMT to enhance performance in sports. There has never been consensus on whether it does or does not, and that for me is telling.
One of the things we always like to impart is to know, study and learn PBMT and not just consider it a magic device like a fairy godmother’s wand and treat anything. The word treat (or manage, if you’re like me who absolutely abhors biblical terms like cure or heal), means there has to be something wrong.
So there is a point in using PBMT after an athlete suffers from an injury, or after a competitive event when you’ve pretty much used up all your glucose reserves, your body is as acidic as vinegar and your musculoskeletal tissues are all bruised and broken and you need to regain its function. Recently, we’ve seen a barrage of PBMT devices: walls of light, coffins (alright, beds) of light, even stuff that you can wrap yourself into like a burrito with the accompanying advertising showing obviously steroid enhanced muscular, sweaty men that we are supposed to emulate. Do they work?
Compiled reviews of these studies, as I said, are not conclusive, but there are a lot of takeaways we can get from these reviews. One, all these studies point towards applying PBMT on specific areas (the quadriceps, the biceps, etc.) and not lying on a coffin (bed) or in between walls of light expecting to come out of it looking like Wolverine.
This is really the ideal way of applying PBMT, on specific areas. Further, the positive studies are done on trained athletes. These are people who work for their jobs. Although PBMT does aid in recovery, it is during training when some damage is done to your muscles, before your body tells your muscles you need to build these up and PBMT certainly assists in building these up because there were microdamages inflicted during training. And these are folks who are constantly doing these microdamages while training, otherwise why would your muscles hurt all day after trying to do 10 sit-up crunches.
You will never enhance performance if you lie on a couch all day. A lot of the negative studies were done on untrained folks like “healthy young men” (healthy young men do not equate to triathlon competitors. That kid who gave me my double double this morning is a healthy young man), or recreational cyclists (yes, your computer typist co-worker who spends sunny Sunday afternoons cycling along the lakeshore while licking ice cream is a recreational cyclist), or were done on sports that really don’t equate with endurance (like judo) but more on creative strategy.
Maybe they should’ve tested for cognitive performance instead. These takeaways point towards the positive effect PBMT can have on professionally trained athletes, who have scores of healthcare workers looking after them and teaching them moves that are safe enough to cause the necessary microstresses to tissues without permanently damaging them and in the end making them stronger with some help from PBMT that decreases some of the damage caused by inflammation, localized lactic acidity, or even small tears resulting from training. In short, you still need to work for it and work for it properly and with assistance.
So, does it work? Yes, absolutely. Havinga(PBMT) as a supportive aid for athletes during training and active competition helps in recovery because of what PBMT does. Do they enhance performance? Yes, but indirectly. Your performance is enhanced by training, exercise, eating healthy and keeping your mind focused, sharp and stress-free. PBMT helps in improving muscle build up after training. It is that muscle build up, improvement in endurance and strategy building during practice that enhances performance. It does not build muscle unlike anabolic steroids. It does not increase red blood cell mass unlike erythropoietin. It won’t help you lose weight like Ozempic. And it doesn’t make you smarter, not like going to school and actually learning stuff. Do you need it to perform better? No. Will it help you perform better? Certainly.
Which brings me to my short diatribe on life. If it ain’t broken why fix it? Why worry about your vagus nerve, your liver, your heart, or a vaccine just because you feel it goes against your values or you have nothing else to blame? In the film American Beauty, a teenager was filming a piece of trash, a plastic bag, being blown around by the wind and proclaimed: “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.” You watch the Olympics and except for some competitions like equestrian, most of the athletes you see there are young, sometimes not even adults, and most retire by the time they are in their thirties.
You burned through your flame early, now let’s temper the flame a little bit and enjoy life. If you’re the kind that believes in a higher deity (at least the one who actually thinks and doesn’t just blindly believe what your leaders tell you), that is what life is all about.
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
– Carl Sigman / Herbert Magidson