A new “soft” laser therapy is to be used nationwide to help prevent patients undergoing treatment for neck and head cancer from suffering severe side effects.

The low level laser therapy (LLLT) or photomedicine will help prevent patients suffering from soreness in the mouth and throat, dry mouth and swallowing problems.

More than 90% of the 4,000 people a year in England and Wales who receive chemoradiotherapy for head and neck cancer experience side effects which can lead to hospital admissions and in some cases interrupt the course of radiotherapy.

The new treatment, developed by the NHS foundation trusts of University Hospital Southampton and Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals, is being trialled nationwide as part of a £1.2 million study funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

Dr Shanmugasundaram Ramkumar, a consultant clinical oncologist at Southampton General Hospital, said the LLLT would improve quality of life for patients.

Dr Shanmugasundaram Ramkumar (University Hospital Southampton)
Dr Shanmugasundaram Ramkumar (University Hospital Southampton)

He said: “If shown to be effective in this large multi-centre study, it could radically change the management of this group of patients in the UK and worldwide.”

Oral mucositis (OM) is one of the main complications of current treatments, affecting taste and speech and causing excessive secretions of saliva which result in nausea, vomiting and weight loss.

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

LLLT is a drug-free treatment that stimulates damaged cells using a low energy laser beam to reduce pain and inflammation and is more commonly used to treat musculoskeletal problems such as tendon, bone and nerve damage.