The technique involves zapping sore joints with a powerful beam of light.
It stimulates the same pressure points targeted in acupuncture – but using low-energy lasers rather than needles.
Volunteers who had the treatment at the University of Dundee reported a significant reduction in pain and discomfort and an improvement in their quality of life.
The beams are thought to work in the same way as needles by stimulating the release of chemicals called endorphins. These are the body’s natural painkillers and are pumped out by the brain during times of pain and stress.
The low-energy beams are powerful enough to release the endorphins but not strong enough to cause burns or damage the skin. Previous studies looking at whether acupuncture can help the millions of people in Britain who suffer with arthritis have yielded mixed results, with some showing it can ease pain and others suggesting it is no better than exercise and physiotherapy.
Lasers could be safer and more popular because they do not carry a risk of infection and are more acceptable to patients who have a phobia about needles.
More than 10 million people in the UK suffer from arthritis, which causes severe joint pain and inflammation. Many are in constant agony, with everyday tasks impossible.
Osteoarthritis affects at least 8.5 million and causes the cartilage between bones to waste away, leading to painful joints usually in the hands, spine, knees and hips. Rheumatoid arthritis is more severe but less common, affecting almost 700,000 people.
It occurs when the immune system attacks the joints, causing pain and swelling, mostly in the hands, wrists and feet.
There is no cure for either condition but the symptoms can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers.
Researchers at Dundee University’s Institute of Motion Analysis and Research recruited 49 patients with osteoarthritis and split them into two groups.
Each patient had their pain levels measured on a scale of one to 10. Twenty-six were given the light treatment on five acupuncture points around the knee, while the other 23 had exactly the same treatment but with a zero-energy laser designed to give a placebo effect.
Crucially, both groups also had to undertake regular exercise which has also been proven to help with pain. The treatment was repeated nine times and six weeks later patients had their pain levels assessed again.
The results, published in the journal Physiotherapy, showed pain scores in those given the laser light dropped an average of 1.3 points, with some falling by as much as 2.4 points. Those given the placebo treatment, meanwhile, saw no improvement.
Six months later, pain scores had dropped even further by an average of 1.8 points and with some patients dropping three points, enough to make a huge difference to their daily lives. In a report on their findings the researchers conclude: “Short-term application of low-level laser therapy, in association with exercise, is effective in reducing pain and improving quality of life.”
Other studies have found lasers may help to promote tissue repair in damaged knees. And low energy lasers have also been found to help in the treatment of depression.
A study last year at the University of Sydney found firing beams at the back and neck boosted mood in patients for up to three months at a time.
Judi Rhys, of the charity Arthritis Care, said: “We welcome any good news that shows how people might ease the pain of osteoarthritis.
“This study has a positive outcome but, as always, the challenge is to ensure that once a new treatment has been identified it reaches as many people as possible.”