Laser Therapy for Diabetic Neuropathy


Chris Iliades, MD

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Diabetic neuropathy is nerve damage caused by diabetes. If you have had diabetes for many years, especially if your glucose has been hard to control, you may get symptoms of neuropathy like tingling, burning, and numbness. Up to 70% of people with diabetes will experience this problem.

Diabetic nerve damage often occurs when your nerves are exposed to high blood sugar, decreased blood supply, and inflammation. The most common type of diabetic neuropathy is peripheral neuropathy, which is damage to the long sensory nerves that travel farthest away from your spinal cord. You are most likely to feel symptoms in your feet, especially in your toes and on the soles of your feet. The condition may also affect your hands, arms, and legs.

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy are the most common and bothersome symptoms that most diabetics experience. The burning and tingling tends to be worse at night and can make it hard to sleep.

Your doctor can treat diabetic neuropathy, but can’t cure it. Optimal control of blood sugar levels is the first step. You can also take drugs that relieve pain, but these treatments are only 40% to 60% successful. Laser therapy is another choice.

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How Does Laser Therapy for Neuropathy Work?

Laser therapy for neuropathy was started in Europe and Russia in the 1960s. This type of laser therapy is called low-level laser therapy, because it is done at low intensity. It doesn’t cause tissue burning or destruction, and it’s painless. Your doctor simply holds the laser device over the area of your body where you feel pain, and low levels of laser energy pass through your skin. Treatments may last about five to 15 minutes and may be repeated two to three times a week for several weeks.

Scientists don’t know exactly how laser therapy helps diabetic neuropathy. Here are some of the possible explanations:

  • It releases chemicals (endorphins) that reduce pain.

  • It reduces swelling.

  • It increases blood flow.

  • It stimulates repair and regrowth of nerve tissue.

Pros and Cons of Laser Therapy for Diabetic Neuropathy

On the positive side, there is little risk involved with laser therapy when done correctly. It is also easy to perform. If you do not find other treatments completely effective, you might have improvement from the laser.

On the negative side, although participants in some studies report significant reduction in pain after treatment, other studies show only minimal improvement. Some experts—including those from the American Academy of Neurology—doubt the effectiveness of laser therapy for diabetic neuropathy. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, treatments like laser therapy, electrical nerve stimulation, magnetic therapy, and light therapy may be helpful, but more research needs to be done before we really know how well they work. 

For now, if you have painful diabetic neuropathy that is not responding well to medications or other treatments, ask your doctor about laser therapy.

Key Takeaways

  1. Painful diabetic neuropathy is a common problem if you have diabetes.

  2. Symptoms like tingling, burning, and numbness may affect your sleep and quality of life.

  3. Current treatments, usually medications, don't cure, and only partially relieve your pain.

  4. Laser therapy is a relatively new treatment that shows promise in reducing your pain.

  5. More studies need to be done before we know how well this treatment works.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jun 13, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Zinman LH, et al. Low-Intensity Laser Therapy for Painful Symptoms of Diabetic Sensorimotor Polyneuropathy. Diabetes Care.27(4):921-924.
  2. Diabetic Neuropathies: The Nerve Damage of Diabetes. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  3. Yamany AA and Sayed HM. Effect of low level laser therapy on neurovascular function of diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Journal of Advanced Research. 2012;3(1):21-28.
  4. Bril V, et al. Evidence-based guideline: treatment of painful diabetic neuropathy. Report of the American Academy of Neurology, the American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, and the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Neurology. 2011 May 17;76(20):1758-65.

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