Dealing with pain, whether chronic or out of the blue, is one of the reasons many reach into the medicine cabinet to grab some form of relief. Some might call them “happy pills,” but painkillers aren’t a healthy long-term solution, leading some tech startups to push holistic alternatives that are easier to use.
BioCare Systems’ LumiWave addresses this, using LED infrared pods as a method to deliver light therapy, which is said to help relieve acute or chronic pain without any side effects. Pain relief is always sought, but is there a glimmer of hope in these lights that something will actually change? Digital Trends tested the LumiWave to find out.
Design and installation
BioCare keeps the LumiWave and its components neatly packed in a box surrounded by foam, almost showing how delicate it all is. The three parts that make up the unit include a strip of four LED modules, a controller and a power adapter.
The device will turn off if it gets too hot, but the temperatures themselves are not that important for the treatment.
The controller is the intermediary in this setup, where both the tape and the adapter plug in at both ends. Only two buttons decorate the steering wheel, and with a simple press they start a 20-minute treatment (higher temperature) and a 30-minute treatment (lower temperature). A belt clip made for the controller helps with use.
Each module has 49 LEDs, for a total of close to 200 for the entire unit (although the LumiWave Double has two strips for increased capacity). On the high setting, it regulates the temperature to approximately 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42 Celsius), while the lower mode lowers it to about 105.8 degrees (40 Celsius). How hot it is feels however, it may vary, but the dose of infrared light is the same in both settings.
When placed on the affected area, the heat produced by the light should be pleasant enough to relieve the pain. Heat is a byproduct of LEDs, but in maintaining some temperature control, LumiWave says it provides the right dose to avoid tissue damage and skin irritation or burns. This means that the device will turn off if it gets too hot, but also that the temperatures in question are not so relevant to the treatment in themselves.
There are no connections here other than the basic ones. There’s no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and no companion app you can use to moderate or control anything about the device. Health and wellness technology sometimes adds a mobile element, but not here. In this case, the sense of difference is the only metric for effective relief.
The belt buckle and velcro system are a bit rudimentary, but they get the job done. Pinning in place for most areas is pretty easy, but much easier around the arms or calves where there is more room to wrap around. Otherwise, no tape is needed. Laying on the shoulder, side or back does not allow much movement of the body, unless it is somewhat restrained by tight clothing (but not too tight).
BioCare emphasizes the safety of LumiWave because it has no side effects, but there are some conditions that preclude its use. Active bleeding, blood clots and malignant diseases are not triggers. Pregnant women should never put it over the uterus. Applying heat-inducing creams or lotions will only burn you. Areas with freshly healed wounds or sensitive skin are better treated with a thin cloth or dressing that will act as a barrier.
Consulting a doctor about using the device is always a good idea, even though it doesn’t require a prescription. The treatment should not last longer than three times a day or less than six hours between applications.
Studies of light therapy date back to the 1960s, but the first approval for its use for pain relief did not occur until the late 1980s. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved LED light therapy by prescription only in 1994. At that time, low-level light therapy, also known in medicine as photobiostimulation, included both laser and LED devices.
BioCare’s LumiWave prototype was approved in 2005, making it the first LED near-infrared light therapy device approved for arthritis pain.
How does it work? Unlike other naturopathic devices like the Quell, which uses electrical stimulation of the Vagus nerve to relieve pain throughout the body, the LumiWave doesn’t work that way. As a localized treatment, it works with the underlying tissue, where infrared light penetrates and releases nitric oxide to increase blood flow and help the tissue heal itself. Healthy tissue produces nitric oxide, while damaged tissue cannot do so in the same way.
For this reason, muscles, tendons and ligaments are the most effective targets. Within those groups are a number of injuries that BioCare claims can be treated with LumiWave, including fibromyalgia, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel, joint pain, arthritis, tendinitis, and several others.
A feeling of warmth
Keeping in mind that the LumiWave was designed to provide relief only, it was always important to remember that it did not actually have medicinal properties when used. Only if the pain was acute could it be effectively managed, but anything chronic probably needs other treatments to address the underlying cause.
The high and low modes were neither warmer nor cooler.
I was a good test case, given my recent history of hip and knee sports injuries, which sometimes have excruciating consequences. In some respects, the LumiWave looked like a heating pad, only with a bit of light coming out of the edges. It didn’t take long to feel the temperature rise when applied directly to the skin, but it never reached an unbearable level. When making contact with bone, especially around the knee, I used a very thin fabric, like one side of a cotton t-shirt, to reduce the impact.
Apart from the duration, the high and low modes were neither hotter nor cooler. At least I didn’t notice much of a change in temperature and it didn’t get too hot to wear for the duration, anyway.
The challenge wasn’t so much the heat, but keeping the LumiWave in place. Putting it on my side required lying on my left side and shifting over my right side to maintain contact. BioCare does not use gels or tapes to prevent the tape from slipping, which is understandable, but sometimes forces the user to improvise. I had to reach for a sports band or a compression sleeve to hold it down, making sure my skin wasn’t irritated and giving me the flexibility to move at least a little. Arms and legs were much lighter because of the strap.
If I felt anything acute, like tightness in my hamstrings or a little pain here and there, the LumiWave did a good job of helping me feel better. However, for more chronic things, I had to be realistic knowing that it was more likely to have a cumulative effect rather than an immediate one.
That’s pretty standard for any physiotherapy anyway, but the optics of a device like this might suggest otherwise. Patience is one of those intangibles that BioCare doesn’t cover enough in its manual. Granted, that’s totally subjective, but since this isn’t meant to be a panacea, reasonable expectations are in order.
BioCare tries to build trust with a recent history of light therapy. It’s easy to dismiss something like this as junk science or the latest snake oil, but at least there’s precedent here. Professional athletes have been using light therapy for years to help recover from minor aches and pains to chronic injuries, including the NFL, MLB and US Olympic teams. BioCare says professional golfers, runners and other athletes have also used the LumiWave, but did not name anyone specifically, possibly for privacy reasons.
A study at Stanford University’s Department of Chemistry looked at the absorbance of near-infrared light for photothermal therapy. In an interview with Self hacked, Harvard professor Dr. Michael Hamblin spoke about the effectiveness and sustainability of this type of treatment as a respected expert in infrared therapy. Red Light Therapy is another website dedicated to this form of treatment.
Paying $500 for the LumiWave Single (tested here) or $720 for the Double is expensive for most pockets. Compared to the cost of physiotherapy over time, this could be an investment. However, again, using LumiWave for chronic pain should probably be part of a broader treatment that also addresses the underlying cause. This device is more for addressing symptoms.
If you’d rather not take pills and further burden your internal organs with their side effects, LumiWave is a drug-free alternative that requires no prescription and has no residual costs. It’s expensive, but worth a try if you spend a lot on pain relievers.