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laser therapy for smoking cessation,

a scientific paper by Julia Breur, Ph.D., LMFT


There can be no question that smoking is a controllable worldwide health epidemic. Tobacco smoke contains dozens of cancer causing chemicals (carcinogens) and is the leading cause of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD; emphysema and chronic bronchitis). The nicotine contained within tobacco is extremely addictive and the behaviors surrounding cigarette and tobacco use are just as hard to break. There are several different approaches to smoking cessation but one of the newest promises to be fast, painless and effective: low level laser treatment.

A recent study by researchers at Middlesex University in the United Kingdom demonstrated that when laser therapy was used on specific acupuncture points (derived from Traditional Chinese Medicine), that not only did nicotine addicted people give up smoking, but their subjective experience during withdrawal was far less severe. Researchers Kerr, Lowe, and Spielholz performed a double blind, randomized, sham controlled trial of 387 nicotine addicted individuals. As an aside, the double blind, placebo controlled, randomized study design is considered the “gold standard” in terms of clinical trials. It means that neither the researchers nor the patients knew what treatment they were getting, whether it was low level laser treatment or a sham (placebo) treatment.

What they found was that the low level laser treated group had more participants that quit smoking than the control group. This result was significantly different using Chi square statistical analysis. Not only did the low level laser treatment result in smoking cessation, but the study participants that had the laser treatment did better in terms of their subjective withdrawal symptoms.

Study participants in both groups reported withdrawal symptoms (with percentage affected) including:

• Irritability 30%
• Tiredness 12%
• Calmness 12%
• Anxiety 9%
• Lack of cravings 19%
• Unpleasant taste when smoking 8%
• Headaches 3%
• Lack of concentration 38%
• Increased appetite 11%

While people in both groups experienced some or all of these symptoms, those individuals in the treatment group reported fewer and/or less severe withdrawal symptoms on average. In fact, many low level laser treated subjects for smoking cessation reported a lack of cravings, less irritability, an increased sense of calm, and reduced anxiety. They report that because they felt better than previous attempts to stop smoking that they were more easily able to avoid the addictive drug, which in cigarettes is nicotine.

The exact laser therapy system used in this clinical trial was from Omega Laser Systems, available through Laser Therapeutics of Centerville, Massachusetts. It was a 820 nm (infrared) single probe laser with a power output of 50 mW and a radiant exposure of 24J/cm2. Because of this power output, the device is currently available only to medical professionals.

The low level laser for smoking cessation used in this study was applied to specific acupressure points. The points used were dictated by Traditional Chinese Medicine and most treatment points were around the ear (auricular). By applying low level light stimulation, study participants were able to quit smoking, stay free of cigarettes, and feel better while they were withdrawing from nicotine. Those without therapy (with sham low level laser treatment) endured the full force of the withdrawal symptoms and returned to nicotine for relief— in other words, a failure of smoking cessation.

The mechanisms that underlie this beneficial affect are unclear, but there are some interesting facts about low level laser therapy that may at least partially explain what was observed in this study. Low level laser treatment has been shown to increase the release of endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are the body’s “feel good” chemicals. When we experience too much pain, our bodies release endorphins to dull some of that pain. Also, many drugs of abuse interact with endorphin receptors producing pleasurable sensations.

When patients that are trying to quit smoking are treated with low level laser therapy, it is conceivable that they may experience a temporary or intermediate term elevation in endorphins in the blood stream. Therefore, while their body is going through nicotine withdrawal (a very uncomfortable experience) the endorphins act to quell or dull some or all of this discomfort. Also, when endorphin receptors are stimulated (by naturally released endorphins in this case), the brain receives signals of mild pleasure. It is hard to feel irritable or anxious when you are experiencing pleasure.

Limited evidence also points to the fact that low level laser therapy can stimulate the release of monoamines (catecholamines) in the brain such as norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. It should be mentioned that one way in which antidepressants medications work is to increase the levels of norepinephrine and serotonin. In fact, bupropion (Zyban) is a smoking cessation medication and atypical antidepressant works in this way. Zyban increases the level of norepinephrine and dopamine within the synaptic cleft by inhibiting reuptake (essentially it makes more of these neurotransmitters available for transmission between nerves).

Moreover, dopamine is strongly implicated in the brain’s reward system. When we do something pleasurable, dopamine is released so that our brains can register and experience that pleasure.

Therefore, assuming that low level laser therapy can stimulate the release of norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine (which early studies suggest), there are ample reasons why the laser treatment would be helpful in smoking cessation. It would increase pleasurable sensations and curb depressive/anxious feelings.

Low level laser for smoking cessation is just one of the potential applications for this technology in terms of addiction. Since endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine underlie the most basic way in which our brains experience pain, pleasure, and emotions, they also underlie various (if not all forms) of addictive behavior and chemical dependency. When people engage and stay locked in addictive behaviors, like smoking, alcohol or even narcotics, they are seeking to 1) receive pleasurable sensations and 2) avoid the pain and discomfort of withdrawing from that substance. Low level laser therapy is a safe, non-invasive, drug-free and painless method of addressing both of those issues.

Low level laser stimulation of auricular acupressure points leading to the release of pleasurable neurotransmitters in the brain can at least partially substitute the pleasurable sensations gained from the offending drug. Likewise, as people attempt to abstain from smoking and nicotine, the low level laser therapy can ease those cravings and withdrawal symptoms by increasing endorphin release. While there is certainly still much to be learned about low level laser for smoking cessation, the initial indications are that this technology can provide effective relief for those who desperately want to quit smoking.

Reference List
  1. Kerr CM, Lowe, PB, Spielholz, NI (2008) Low level laser for the stimulation of acupoints for smoking cessation: a double blind, placebo controlled randomised trial and semi structured interviews. Journal of Chinese Medicine 86:46-51.


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