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NASA Light Therapy

NASA Research Illuminates Medical Uses of Light Experimentation helped demystify, legitimize, and simplify medical uses for long-known but little-understood light therapy

Originally published 05/19/2022

Can light help a wound heal faster? Alleviate pain? Prevent loss of eyesight?

Although decades of studies indicate it can – including extensive research funded by NASA – the mounting evidence hasn’t always drawn the attention that might be expected for such a striking discovery.

This may be because the science behind it hasn’t been well understood. For example, although a Danish physician received a Nobel Prize in 1903 for discovering that exposure to concentrated red light accelerated the healing of sores, he remained reluctant to put it into practice without understanding why it worked.

A larger barrier to acceptance, though, has probably been that it simply sounds unbelievable.

In a 1989 paper about the health benefits of low-powered laser light, biophysicist Tiina Karu noted that the treatment appeared “highly incredible and even mysterious.” What’s more, she wrote, its effectiveness against many different ailments only added to doubts by creating the appearance of a proverbial snake-oil panacea.

Karu hypothesized that red light treated many afflictions because it improved overall cell function by stimulating the mitochondria that drive metabolism in animal cells. This would accelerate cell production and relieve oxidative stress, a factor that causes inflammation and symptoms of aging and ultimately contributes to diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and other illnesses.

Today it’s thought that red and infrared wavelengths are absorbed by cytochrome C oxidase, a key enzyme in cellular metabolism, and probably by other light-sensitive chemicals, triggering a cascade of effects within the cell.

Karu and others began to suspect that “uniform” laser light probably wasn’t necessary for producing beneficial effects, but it was NASA that finally answered that question after the space agency stumbled on it accidentally.

LEDs for Plants, Then People

In the late 1980s, engineer Ron Ignatius worked at a company that partnered with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR), which was funded by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. As light-emitting diode (LED) technology entered the commercial market, Ignatius worked with WCSAR to study this new lighting for growing plants in space. In 1989, Ignatius founded Quantum Devices Inc., and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding from NASA paid the company to complete an LED plant-growth unit that grew potatoes on the space shuttle in 1995.

But the research had a side effect. The LEDs were red and blue because these are the most efficient light wavelengths for driving photosynthesis, and NASA scientists who spent time working with their hands under the lighting found that abrasions on their hands seemed to heal faster than normal.

This was how NASA stumbled into the world of medical light therapy. The agency saw a possible solution to a longstanding problem of space travel: without gravity, astronauts’ muscles and bones atrophy, and any wounds heal slowly, all of which endangers missions.

Ignatius also became interested in possible medical uses for LEDs. When he learned that Harry Whelan, a neurologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, was investigating medical applications of light, he reached out.

Between 1995 and 2003, a series of eight NASA SBIR contracts, mostly from Marshall, funded experimentation on medical uses of LEDs, carried out between Quantum Devices, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and a few other entities.

Near-infrared laser light had recently been shown to speed healing of wounds – particularly those that were starved for oxygen – by boosting the production of growth-factor proteins, collagen, and blood vessels. But lasers had drawbacks, said Helen Stinson, who oversaw the work as a senior engineer in Marshall’s Spacecraft and Vehicle Systems Department. “With lasers, you’ve got to be careful not to damage surrounding tissue, and they also use a lot of energy and they’re expensive,” said Stinson.

Besides addressing these issues, LED arrays also can be designed to emit multiple wavelengths, and they can cover a larger area than a laser.

Light Treatments Prove Themselves

Through experimentation, the researchers showed that high-intensity red and near-infrared LEDs significantly accelerated the healing of oxygen-deprived wounds in rats and also sped the growth and proliferation of skin, bone, and muscle cell cultures from mice and rats. The team supplied LED devices to U.S. Navy crews for treatment of training injuries. These produced more than a 40 percent greater improvement in musculoskeletal injuries and a 50 percent faster healing time for lacerations, compared to control groups.

Around that time, Whelan and colleagues showed that irradiation with Quantum Devices’ red LED arrays prevented methanol from causing blindness in rats, leading them to suggest light therapy as a treatment for retinal ailments from glaucoma to age-related macular degeneration.

With additional military funding, Quantum Devices advanced this technology as the handheld WARP 10 – for Warfighter Accelerated Recovery by Photobiomodulation – to treat pain, inflammation, and minor injuries in military personnel. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared its use for the temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain, arthritis, and muscle spasms.


As a whole here on planet earth, most of the outdated lighting systems that consume a lot of energy and are manufactured with harmful heavy metals and toxic elements are being replaced with LED’s. The LED technology has also been advancing in leaps and bounds, allowing for the creation of advanced light therapy devices to speed the healing of wounds and alleviate pain and inflammation.

Quantum Healing Devices are now being made that combine laser, LED and frequency medicine to allow for the home consumer and small clinical practice to take advantage of Cold Laser Therapy in clinical practice and at home. The FDA has cleared a number of cold lasers and low level light therapy devices for purchase over the counter (OTC) without the need for a license or prescription.

The Scalar Wave Laser (SWL) is a good example of an advanced, portable cold laser that combines 3 healing wavelengths of red laser, infrared laser, violet LED, frequency medicine capabilities and patent pending scalar wave technology. This hand-held portable, rechargeable laser therapy device fits in the palm of the hand, lied flat on the body, tucks easily into under clothing and is simple to operate for the average person. It has 11 Essential frequency settings, a timer from 1-20 minutes, and a it covers a large round surface area of 2.5″. Special energetic frequencies are preprogrammed to go beyond just pain relief and allow for chakra healing, blood cleansing, organ and gland balancing, brain support, joint and spine rejuvenation and so much more. The Scalar Wave Laser is FDA cleared, OTC for home or Pro use and is affordable for the average user to own and operate. Training is provided for free and advanced operation options are available such as the addition of 1, 2 or 3 specialty laser probes that are powered by the main SWL unit via a data cord, allowing for more concentrated delivery of specific laser wavelengths in the Red, Infrared and Violet laser spectrum, for faster treatments. Plus these laser probes lend themselves perfectly to the treatment of acupuncture points in 30-60 seconds, trigger points in 2 minutes, dental issues, foot pain, wrist pain and Arthritis anywhere in the body. The SWL is FDA cleared for Arthritis, Pain Relief, Increasing Blood Circulation, Reducing Inflammation and Relaxing Contracted Tissues.

Laser Healing

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