By Ronni Shulman
Vice Chair, Raynaud’s Association
The 45-year-old professional singer-songwriter-musician (www.NicoleEdwardsMusic.com) has dealt with Raynaud’s for nearly 15 years, a secondary symptom of her scleroderma. “I’d get very painful ulcers on my fingertips. It felt like someone slammed a car door on them. Nothing I tried helped them to heal,” she recalls.
Because Nicole has low blood pressure, her physicians did not recommend the calcium channel blocker drugs or vasodilators typically used for Raynaud’s because they tend to lower blood pressure. The ulcers persisted and worsened despite naturopathic herbal remedies and salt water soaks. “I thought I would lose my fingers,” Edwards worried. “My life revolved around coping with my wounds, doing whatever I could to ease the pain. I couldn’t pick up things or touch things, and playing my guitar was almost impossible.”
For Edwards, relief came in early 2015 when she met with a chiropractor during a stay in Ontario. He treated the Raynaud’s with cold laser therapy, a relatively new technology sometimes called Low Level Lasers (LLL) or non-thermal lasers (as opposed to other heat-generating lasers used for surgery or hair removal).
The non-invasive technique penetrates the targeted tissue, stimulating the cells to regenerate into healthy cells. According to Dr. Brent Thompson, who treated Edwards at his office in Barrie, Ontario, “The laser triggers the body to heal itself. Laser energy helps to repair damaged cells by accelerating the body’s natural healing mechanisms. It works incredibly well for Raynaud’s and many other inflammatory conditions.”
Edwards felt relief after one visit, but she knew she’d need a series of treatments for the effects to last. Back in her tiny town of Whitehorse in the Yukon, finding a therapist who had the appropriate cold laser equipment was impossible. Determined to “lick her wounds,” she contacted Theralase Technologies Inc., the Toronto manufacturer of the equipment Dr. Thompson used in her treatment. Practitioners who use the treatment are largely chiropractors, pain management clinics, arthritis specialists and even veterinarians.
Although Edwards is not a medical professional, Theralase agreed to allow her to purchase a portable unit that they would train her to use at home.
As a popular local celebrity known for entertaining crowds in area venues with her band, she had a league of fans who wanted to show their appreciation. They held a gala fundraiser that raised the money for her to purchase the machine.
Now, she says, her life is “dramatically better.” With daily use of the laser machine for just about three minutes, her wounds have healed and no more have developed. “I use it now as a preventative, and there’s no pain or side effects,” she reports. The device hasn’t cured her Raynaud’s, and she still has episodes triggered by the cold, but new ulcerations haven’t formed. “My quality of life is so much better,” she says, “and I don’t worry about losing my fingers anymore.”
A Treatment, Not a Cure
Despite his enthusiasm for non-thermal laser treatment for Raynaud’s patients, Dr. Thompson is quick to note that it is not a cure. “Raynaud’s is a disorder of the sympathetic nervous system,” he says. “We need to find out what is causing the system to overreact in the first place – and first look into that.”
The treatment is different for primary Raynaud’s and secondary Raynaud’s. “With scleroderma, like Nicole has, there’s much more going on in the body,” Dr. Thompson adds. Chiropractic and the laser work together to treat the individual’s entire system. Patients may begin with three to four treatments per week for the first two weeks, then taper off to fewer treatments for the next week or so. “Everyone is different,” he says.
Scleroderma and Raynaud’s patient Jan Gnall, secretary of the Raynaud’s Association and a Tampa, Florida resident, tried the treatment once or twice weekly for a short time. “I thought it might help to treat my digital ulcers, but I didn’t notice any results. Maybe I would have seen a difference if I used it more,” she said. “I began to worry about the expense and also that it might create more scar tissue.”
Dr. Thompson, who was not the doctor who treated Gnall, said that Gnall’s fears are “understandable, but unfounded.” The laser works on the cell structure itself, he notes, repairing it so that healthy tissue emerges. Gnall says, “Perhaps I didn’t give it enough of a chance. Maybe I’ll give it another try.”
Edwards says she found that not all lasers are alike. “I tried two different brands that I did not have success with,” she says.
Dr. Thompson uses the Theralase non-thermal laser technology to treat a large variety of inflammatory conditions including tendonitis, joint injuries, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and sprains and strains throughout the body. It also aids in speeding healing of patients with knee and hip replacements.
Alan Chan, director of marketing for Theralase Technologies, says “Low Level Laser Therapy has been shown to accelerate healing, reduce inflammation and eliminate pain, so treatment and recovery times are often shorter and more comfortable.” Chiropractors are the most common type of practitioner for this FDA-approved therapy for musculoskeletal conditions and related inflammatory disorders.
A typical treatment costs $20-50, according to Chan. Some insurance companies may cover it for certain conditions. Low Level Laser Therapy is not recommended for patients with active cancer, thyroid or endocrine disorders; cases where cell stimulation is not desired.
Unlike lasers used in surgery or hair removal, “non thermal” lasers do not produce significant heat. “In some cases a patient may feel some small tingling to the area being treated because of the accelerated blood flow to that area,” says Dr. Thompson. “It can’t burn a patient,” says Chan.
Chan adds, “Unlike other equipment that uses LED lights, the laser supplies light energy to the body in precise pulses to jumpstart the healing process and reduce pain. Since the laser operates within a specific wavelength range that is non-thermal (the ‘therapeutic window’), there is no risk of tissue damage or other complications that are typically related to a high power hot laser.”
Editor’s Note: Our Medical Advisory Board notes that there have been no controlled trials for this treatment for Raynaud’s, scleroderma or for healing digital ulcers. Therefore the device’s efficacy and safety have not been established. Please speak with your doctor before trying any medical devices or other treatment strategies.