Dr. Robert Kraft and his staff in California have pressed an experimental treatment, transcranial laser treatments, into tackling PTSD and TBI, and they're already getting great results with veterans and victims of sexual trauma. Now, they want to spread the word and hopefully get the treatment adopted across a wider area, allowing more vets and PTSD sufferers to benefit.
Using lasers to treat pain is a relatively new practice, and when Dr. Kraft first heard about it, he wanted to know more.
"So, I'm basically a traditionally trained anesthesiologist," he said, "and I never believed that laser could penetrate anything, and initially, I was exposed to the laser because it claimed to treat pain, and I investigated. The scientific research is very strong, but there are not a lot of controlled trials on the pain side, but the science is actually very strong."
Turns out, some lasers can penetrate human flesh and bone, but they expend a lot of energy doing so. And so when Dr. Kraft started reviewing the medical literature, he started to think doctors could get better results with a higher dose.
"There's a certain frequency," he explained, "it's just outside of the red light zone called near-infrared, and it's between 800 and 1,100 nanometers, and that frequency, those colors are basically the only ones in the entire spectrum that can penetrate the body, and by penetrate, what I mean is that they lose about 80% of their power every centimeter, so [in US standard units], then that's 90% every inch."
But when that energy reaches the patient's brain, it can have great benefits.
"Cells that absorb the laser will secrete nerve growth factor, so that obviously can help some neurons, nerve cells regrow."
Basically, the light hits the nerves, the nerves use that energy to release chemicals that help brain cells heal and regrow, and the brain can actually repair some damage to itself, whether the original trauma was emotional or physical. It could help heal damage from both PTSD and TBI.
"Any cell that absorbs it and give it more energy, and that could mean that cells, including the helper cells, in the brain, which is really the white matter of the brain, if it's been injured, for instance in the case of TBI, those cells will get more energy to heal, and then the third thing is that for almost— there's no scientific paper about this, but if you were to talk to these people every day like we do during the treatment, new neural circuits are formed, and I think that's the key item. The laser increases what's called neuroplasticity, which obviously means that the brain becomes able to reconnect and forms new circuits."
An Air Force veteran undergoes transcranial laser pain relief.
(Screenshot courtesy LaserMD Pain Relief)
After reading the literature, Dr. Kraft decided to see if the claims of other laser practitioners stood up to the hype.
"I decided to start treating PTSD patients myself to see if it was really as good as they claimed," he said, "and I've treated 10 adults and two kids, and I'm using doses that are about three times higher than they published the report at, and indeed, it is a phenomenal treatment. It's not a perfect treatment of PTSD. The patient I've treated who's been the oldest patient is a female ... So this one patient I treated, she's about 12 months since her last treatment, and she has retained 95% improvement in all of her symptoms."
Dr. Kraft says that 60 percent of his patients experience improvement during treatment.
"I opened up a pain clinic, and I actually have the most laser pain experience in the country, probably in the world," he said. "In terms of treating pain, the laser is an unbelievable treatment. Unbelievable meaning that 60 percent of people get some relief. It's not 100 percent, but compared to conventional pain treatments, injections and pills, it's far superior."
A notable shortcoming of the treatment is that, in Kraft's experience, it gives little relief to children. Kraft has two patients that he classifies as children, and neither has seen a massive improvement with laser therapy. He's also reluctant to try the therapy with any patient with a history of seizures, worried that adding energy to the brain could trigger a seizure.
Still, for PTSD and TBI patients as a whole and veterans, in particular, treatments that help adults are a great start. So, if the treatment got positive results in the 10-patient study, and Dr. Kraft's 10 adult patients are doing so well, what's stopping this treatment from going on tour and helping vets and other PTSD sufferers around the country?
Well, there are few things. First and most importantly, much more study is needed to ensure the treatments work, work long term, and have no unidentified side effects (in Dr. Kraft's patients so far, the sensation of heat and of "brain fog" that dissipates within a day has been reported). But if a foundation or corporation with deep enough pockets were to get the treatment through the regulatory hurdles, there's little reason why the treatment couldn't be rolled out quickly.
Logistically, conducting the treatment is very easy. The laser system is fairly easy to operate and just needs a good power source. Dr. Kraft even said the system could be rolled out on a mobile platform.
"The long-term goal is to deploy this to the VA and DOD," he said, "and actually if this treatment were fully developed, you could actually essentially have a medic in a Winnebago, go around even to rural areas, to treat people rather [than bringing them into clinics]. Because a lot of the vets can't make it into the big medical center in big cities."
"I think that in five to ten years, it's going to be considered the gold standard of PTSD treatments."