Veterinarians Add Laser Therapy to Arthritis Treatment

Laser treatment can now stave off arthritic pain in pets.

February 22, 2011, 5:31 PM

Feb. 23, 2011— -- Bill Dougherty's trusty 135-pound German shepherd, Rex, has suffered from a limp and joint pain for the past two years. This man's best friend, 70 in dog years, 10 in people years, needed treatment for his arthritic pain. But rather than opting for traditional pills or surgery, Dougherty tried a new, seemingly magical, laser therapy that the local veterinary clinic, Village Animal Clinic in North Palm Beach, Fla., was offering to arthritic dog and cats.

"Rex was always a very active dog, but he started exhibiting some problems with his shoulders," said Dougherty, who owns three other dogs. "He probably has about two years left, and we didn't want to take out six months of his life for surgery, so we tried this."

Dougherty said that Rex's limp and overall activity and happiness improved almost immediately after the first laser treatment.

"We used to say that Rex was like the old man on the hill," said Dougherty. "He'd point out the distraction and then the younger ones would go after it. But now, he's back and a part of the gang."

Mike Berkenblit, owner of Village Animal Clinic and lead veterinarian on site, performed the laser therapeutic procedure on Rex, and many other animals. Other pet owners have seen similar dramatic improvements in their dogs and cats who underwent the treatment.

The cold laser therapy is a noninvasive procedure that uses light to stimulate cells and increase blood circulation. At the correct laser wavelength, pain signals are reduced and nerve sensitivity decreases. The procedure also releases endorphins, or natural painkillers, but it is not recommended for animals that have cancer because the device can stimulate blood flow to cancer cells.

The procedure is based on the idea that light is absorbed into the cells. The process, known as photo-biotherapy, stimulates protein synthesis and cell metabolism, which improves cell health and functionality.

The therapy can take as little as eight to 10 minutes on a small dog or cat, or about a half hour for bigger dogs with more arthritic areas. And to create the appropriate atmosphere, Berkenblit and his staff work to make the dog as comfortable as possible. The animal reclines in a room, the lights are turned down low and soothing music plays in the background.

Spa Time for Rex

"We always say that Rex is going to the spa when he goes to get his laser treatment," said Dougherty. "He used to hate going to the vet, but now he loves it. It's where he can go to relax and listen to Beyonce."

Hey, what dog wouldn't love a little soothing Beyonce to set the mood?

This isn't the first time that Berkenblit has put laser treatment to the test. Eight years ago, Berkenblit tried a laser procedure on his own yellow Lab, Woody, but he was unimpressed with the results on his beloved dog.

But about a year ago, he learned of new and improved laser procedures and was convinced to try again.

"I was very skeptical about the treatment at first," said Berkenbilt. "But technology has rocketed ahead and evolved. Now, almost immediately after treatment, people call and say that their animal is doing stuff that he hasn't done in years. It's been a lifesaver for some pets."

Dougherty was so impressed by the results in Rex that he looked into buying a laser device for personal use on his dogs. But the $30,000 price tag hit the bank a bit too hard.

But at $250 for six treatments, Dougherty said that he'll continue to pay for Rex's laser treatments to keep him happy and painfree.

Berkenblit said that the treatment does has not shown any adverse effects so far, although a small portion of dogs and cats will not respond as dramatically to the treatment as Rex and others. About 70 percent of the animals show improvement in arthritic pain. Thirty percent do not experience any change.

Vets' Take on Things

Other veterinarians have also been convinced by the buzz surrounding the procedure.

"This is important, exciting stuff," said "Good Morning America's" family doctor for pets Marty Becker. "I'm at the world's largest veterinary meeting in Vegas and seminars on rehab and booths of laser companies are packed."

Most dogs begin showing arthritic symptoms at 6 or 7 years old. While some arthritis can be prevented by maintaining an ideal body weight in one's dog or cat, most dogs will experience some sort of arthritic pain as they grow into old age.

Animal and Human Treatment Collide

"Laser therapy is a very effective modality to speed and direct healing in dogs with painful arthritis, strains and sprains and other injuries or effects of aging," said Dr. Christine Zink, director of the department of molecular and comparative pathobiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "It has been used in humans for a long time and dogs now can reap the benefits, too."

And it's Berkenblit himself who put that idea to the test. After spending days crawling around his house after throwing out his back, he finally thought to make his way to the clinic, where he used the laser device on his own back."I walked out that door and I thought, 'That's pretty cool,'" he said.

Berkenbilt said that other nurses and technicians often use the device for their personal aches and pains, too.

Some may still wonder how lasers can ward off arthritis and pain, but several research studies provide evidence about the benefits of laser therapy treatment.

Dr. Bradley Frederick, director of doctors at the International Sports Science Center and founder of American Health Lasers, uses high-powered lasers to treat people, even professional athletes, on a wide range of injuries and inflammatory conditions.

"We have seen increases in the rate of production of energy after treatment," said Frederick. "The laser stimulates cellular activity to cells that it hits. The key is hitting the cell to accelerate oxidation."

In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration approved its first trial on laser treatment for cell damage. The double-blind studies from Baylor College of Medicine improved carpal tunnel disease in patients about 70 percent more than in the control group using traditional physical therapy programs.

Another study, published in August 2000 in the Journal of Rheumatology, found that cold laser therapy reduced pain by 70 percent and increased tip-to-palm flexibility by more than 1 centimeter, when compared with those in the placebo group.

And finally, a July 2007 study from Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston showed that low-level laser therapy was highly effective in reducing swelling in patients with knee-joint arthritis.

Frederick, who has treated several L.A. Clippers basketball players, said that patients often come to him for help when they cannot find any other options to help heal their pain. Different wavelengths and power outlets can treat a variety of injuries, from diabetic ulcers to arthritis and acute injuries.

"I've seen patients who have arthritis so bad that it's bone-on-bone with no cartilage whatsoever," said Frederick. "They will convince me to try and treat them, and I tell them they're probably not going to see any improvements, but there are several who are now at the gym, in the garden, or taking care of their grandkids."

Frederick said the dramatic results, even now, can still sometimes surprise him but warns there are a lot of misconceptions.

"It's a Wild West out there with laser technology," said Frederick. "You're going to see a lot of this used in the future. ...There is an efficacy in this device that just needs a proper amount of energy and delivery system. And we've seen some pretty phenomenal results."