LEDs are increasingly being used in the medical field for everything from endoscopy to blood analysis. But a new therapeutic use of light also is emerging, thanks to research being conducted by NASA.

A “lightbulb” moment for researchers

In an attempt to put a human on Mars, NASA and other space exploration programs from around the world are pushing the envelope with the length of astronauts’ space missions. But during these long periods of time in weightlessness, astronauts commonly suffer from muscle and bone atrophy. On top of that, minor injuries do not heal as easily in microgravity.

NASA initially discovered that the LEDs being used for plant growth experiments in space also accelerated the healing process for wounds. Further research began to narrow in on the optimal wavelengths and found that when used in conjunction with hyperbaric oxygen, the best results were achieved.

The NASA scientists have discovered that near-infrared (near-IR) LEDs in the 630nm to 880nm range are the most effective in promoting cell growth and thus stimulating faster healing. For surface healing of the skin, researchers found that the most suitable wavelength is around 660nm; for deeper wound healing, approximately 880nm appears to be most effective.

Near-IR light also shows promise for treating the muscle and bone atrophy suffered by astronauts on those long space missions. However, this emerging LED light is creating interest not only in space exploration and military applications (it’s difficult for wounds to heal in a low-oxygen/high-carbon dioxide submarine atmosphere, which lacks sunlight too), but also in civilian medical care. The research showed more rapid healing for wounds and injuries such as burns, fractures, radiation tissue damage, skin grafts, oral sores caused by chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and surgical wounds, and it even helps speed the healing of diabetic skin ulcers.

How light works to heal

Researchers believe that the near-IR LED light therapy works by stimulating color-sensitive chemicals in the mitochondria of body tissues’ cells. Light wavelengths from 680nm to 880nm can pass through skin and muscle tissue, promoting tissue and deep wound healing. Light with higher wavelengths are able to penetrate deeper into the body. Results of clinical trials on various single- and mixed-wavelength LED lamps show that near-IR light therapy accelerates cell growth 150 to 200 percent when compared to non-treated cells.

At the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Experimental and Clinical Traumatology in Vienna, Austria, researchers took the initial NASA findings on the potential of near-IR and expanded them to study 470nm blue light’s impact on tissue regeneration. The Austrian researchers discovered that blue light also has a significant and positive impact on the human body’s ability to heal itself (when compared to no light therapy).

Additional research is being conducted to examine the ability of specific wavelength LED light to treat eye disorders such as lazy eye, diabetic macular degeneration, and retinopathy, and to destroy some cancer cells in conjunction with other cancer treatments. Researchers already have used red LED probes to successfully treat brain tumors. Deeply-penetrating wavelengths are being studied for treatment of cranial traumas, and potentially, to help those suffering from dementia.

Choosing the right LED options

Among the numerous benefits of LED medical light therapy devices are the cost-effectiveness and relatively simple construction. Depending on the application, therapeutic light products may utilize LEDs with multiple wavelengths or a single wavelength and can be assembled into large, flat devices for treating a sizeable surface area, such as burns or large surgical sites.

As noted above, the light’s necessary penetration depth–depending on whether the device is for use on surface tissue or deeper muscles and bones–will determine which LED wavelength is needed. Other factors to consider are energy use and power/heat output.

Marktech Optoelectronics offers visible red LEDs and near-IR emitters, as well as blue light LEDs, and we are happy to help you select the right LED and package for your unique needs. Check out our online product selector guide.

But Marktech’s value goes beyond a large product selection. We have an on-site team of highly experienced engineers who can guide you through the entire product development process, from prototyping to quality analysis to manufacturing. And if we don’t have the exact product or package that you need, we are one of the only optoelectronics companies in the U.S. that offers custom assemblies.

So, what do you want to build? Contact Marktech today, and let’s get started!