Southampton doctors pioneer use of 'soft' laser for cancer patients

low level laser therapyDoctors in Southampton are the first in the UK to use ‘soft’ laser therapy to help prevent side effects in patients receiving treatment for head and neck cancer.

Dr Shanmugasundaram Ramkumar, a consultant clinical oncologist at Southampton General Hospital, is introducing low level laser therapy (LLLT) as a way of healing tissue in the mouth and throat while a patient undergoes chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

He described the technology as a “potential breakthrough” and said it could “radically change” the outlook for individuals – as well as reduce costs for the NHS.

Around 80 to 100% of people with head and neck cancer treated with chemoradiotherapy suffer from severe soreness in the mouth and throat, dry mouth and swallowing problems as a result of their treatment.

The complication, known as oral mucositis, can also affect taste and speech and cause excessive secretions of saliva, which leads to nausea, vomiting and breathing difficulties. 

Currently, patients are treated with a combination of pain killers and anti-sickness drugs and many require frequent hospital appointments or admissions to control their symptoms or provide nutritional support via nasal or stomach feeding tubes.

LLLT, which is also known as cold laser therapy, is a drug-free treatment that stimulates damaged cells using an LED light beam to reduce pain and inflammation and is more commonly used to treat musculoskeletal problems such as tendon, bone and nerve damage. 

“Oral mucositis is a serious acute side effect for patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy for head and neck cancer and, at present, the treatment options we have available do not fully address the problems these patient suffer from,” explained Dr Ramkumar.

“In the majority of cases, it causes very unpleasant complications such as painful dry mouth, swallowing difficulties and sickness but, in the worst cases, it can interrupt radiotherapy treatment and increase the risk of re-growth of tumour cells.”

A recent review of 18 international studies with a total of 1,144 patients by researchers in Toronto, Canada found LLLT reduced the development of severe oral mucositis and significantly reduced pain, severity and duration among those who suffered from it.

Dr Ramkumar said: “There is consistent evidence from small high quality studies that LLLT can partly prevent development of this complication and reduce pain, so it offers the potential for a real breakthrough for supportive treatment of head and neck cancer patients in the UK.

“We think, by introducing this technology as part of cancer treatment, we could radically change the impact this condition currently has by ensuring better outcomes, improved quality of life for patients and better treatment compliance, but also reduced medication and inpatient costs for the NHS.”  

He added: “However, a definitive project is needed for using LLLT in routine clinical practice to be certain of the benefits for patients undergoing a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and we are extremely pleased to be leading such an exciting project.”

Dr Ramkumar has been awarded £50,000 by NHS England’s Regional Innovation Fund to launch the project, which will initially involve 20 patients at Southampton General Hospital before rolling out to between 120 and 140 patients within the next year.


Each therapy session takes around 15 to 20 minutes and is delivered three times a week for six weeks during radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment. 

Posted on Tuesday 2 December 2014

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