The Strange Recovery Tool Athletes Are Using to Improve Their Performance and Prevent Injuries

Does light therapy actually work? Read on to find out.

Ice, heat, ultrasound and electric stimulation are well-known recovery and rehab tools. However, did you know that light can also be included in this toolbox?

Yes, you read that right. Light.

Technically called photobiomodulation (PBM for short) or low-level light therapy, the method involves exposing the body to LED lights to stimulate recovery. At first, this might sound like something out of the catalog in the back of an airplane seat. But light therapy is a thing. And it works.

According to Mark Murdock, managing partner at CryoUSA (the company behind cryotherapy), PBM is no gimmick. It's a clinically proven method that has many benefits with little to no risk.

"Low-level light therapy has been around for 15 years and there've been over 400 medical studies and 4,000 clinical trials covering it," Murdock says.

The light in these devices is not some generic flashlight or light bulb. It's tuned to specific intensities that can actually alter how your cells function.

With the correct intensity and dosage, light eliminates or reduces oxidative stress and free radicals in the mitochondria of cells and creates ATP, which is what every cell in the human body uses for energy.

There appear to be three primary benefits that result from this treatment: improved recovery, lower risk of injury and better performance.

Improved Recovery

Studies have found that PBM can help muscles recover faster after High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or heavy strength training. It also reduces muscle soreness and limits strength and tightness after a challenging workout. A faster and more effective recovery should promote greater strength and size gains and result in higher-quality workouts and improved performance in subsequent workouts.

Reduces the Risk of Injury

Regular use of PBM conditions your body and appears to help prevent injuries or reduce their severity. "If athletes are doing this on an ongoing basis and aren't technically injured, they are going to see a preconditioning aspect and reducing injuries or the severity of injuries," Murdock says.

PBM appears to be effective for managing pain, inflammation, arthritis and knee discomfort. It may also help limit the severity of a concussion.

"If you do it before you get a concussion, you are going to get over the concussion faster," says Murdock. "And it's so powerful that the ratio is, if you can do one session pre-injury, it's equal to about six weeks of sessions post-concussion."

Improves Performance

Several studies show improved training and sports performance with regular use of PBM. Murdock points to one where the Brazilian volleyball team achieved 30 to 40 percent increase in Curl reps to failure after a single light session. It appears that PBM helps delay fatigue and improve oxygen consumption, which, when combined, improves muscular endurance.

These benefits sound pretty great, so why aren't more athletes using PBM on a regular basis?

Current light treatments are done with a handheld device and take about 30 or so minutes on a single area to be effective. So unless you have an area that needs extra treatment, it's not all that practical. For example, it's highly unlikely that you'll do PBM on your biceps before an arm workout.

Also, it's difficult to apply the light treatment correctly, which isn't going to hurt you but will limit your potential benefits.

"It's hard to screw up light. Even when you do it for the wrong intensity, time or dosage, you still get a benefit," explains Murdock. "It's kind of like going to the gym. Even if you just move for 30 minutes, you'll get a benefit. But if you do it right, you're getting a better outcome."

NovoTHOR, a new PBM treatment device, hopes to solve these problems and bring PBM mainstream.

NovoTHOR PBM Machine

If you didn't know any better, you would think the NovoTHOR is a tanning bed. It would be hard to fault this assumption, because it looks and functions similar to a tanning bed. But it's actually the first device that provides PBM to your entire body in only 20 minutes—and no, you won't get a tan.

"If an athlete can walk in, get in a bed, push a button and get a 20-minute light treatment for their entire body—and get a greater outcome—now you've got a game changer," says Murdock.

Pro athletes are beginning to jump on the NovoTHOR bandwagon. The Phoenix Suns have a device, and the Orgeon Project had one shipped to Rio on a private jet for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

According to Murdock, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

So when will this become mainstream? It's hard to say exactly as the device is expensive and we don't expect PBM recovery salons to pop up all over the country—although that would be awesome. Rather, we expect NovoTHOR to gradually become more common in elite performance centers, physical therapy offices and local recovery-focused businesses.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock