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Is green light therapy the future of non-pharmaceutical pain relief?

Emerging evidence supports the idea that green colored light might give pain relief without drugs.

Uncontrolled pain presents a major impact on our quality of life, especially when it becomes chronic in duration (lasting >3 months). Scientists continue to learn how complex pain processing is and clinicians how difficult it can be to control in patients. Insofar, zero non-pharmaceutical solutions have been able to topple narcotics as the gold standard in pain relief. Unfortunately, long term use of opiates can be habit-forming, tolerance-building, and deleterious to normal bodily function. It makes sense to try finding alternative treatment methods for getting pain relief that does not involve relying on harmful drugs. As it turns out, intriguing new studies are being published demonstrating the pain-relieving qualities of exposure to green light. Even if light or photo therapy doesn’t replace narcotics when it comes to chronic pain management, the notion that it could be used in combination with more established therapies to reduce the number or dosage of pain medications in somebody’s life, seems worthwhile.

Here is a short collection of summaries about that research:

Rats were less reactive to painful stimuli after green light exposure.

  • Rats exposed to green LED light just 3-5 hours x 3 days began to show anti-nociceptive response (reduced reaction to painful stimulus)
  • Peak anti-nociception occurred at 4-5 days and was best produced at lower light intensities (vs brighter)
  • Blocking the green light with opaque contact lenses prevented pain-inhibiting response
  • Rats given contact lenses that allowed only green frequencies of ambient light to pass ALSO had anti-nociceptive response
  • Rats continued to show slower pain reaction for 4 days after green light exposure was stopped with their reactions returning to normal after 5 more days

Ibrahim MM, Patwardhan A, Gilbraith KB, et al. Long-lasting antinociceptive effects of green light in acute and chronic pain in rats. Pain. 2017;158(2):347-360. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000767

Green light exposure reduced the intensity, frequency, and duration of headaches for people suffering from episodic and chronic migraines.

  • Migraine sufferers had ~10% fewer headache days per month when being exposed to 1-2 hours/day for 10 weeks of white light but demonstrated ~59% fewer headaches in response to green light exposure with the same regimen after a 2 week “washout” period
  • Green light exposure resulted in greater improvements in quality of life, pain, and headache impact test scores than with white light
  • No adverse side effects from green light exposure were reported

Martin LF, Patwardhan AM, Jain SV, et al. Evaluation of green light exposure on headache frequency and quality of life in migraine patients: A preliminary one-way cross-over clinical trial. Cephalalgia. 2021;41(2):135-147. doi:10.1177/0333102420956711

Green light exposure seems to help people suffering from fibromyalgia, a condition that often presents with widespread pain.

  • Green light exposure for 1-2 hours/day for 10 weeks resulted in significant reductions in pain intensity, improved quality of life, and reduced impact of fibromyalgia on daily function
  • No adverse reactions were reported

Martin L, Porreca F, Mata EI, et al. Green Light Exposure Improves Pain and Quality of Life in Fibromyalgia Patients: A Preliminary One-Way Crossover Clinical Trial [published online ahead of print, 2020 Nov 6]. Pain Med. 2020;pnaa329. doi:10.1093/pm/pnaa329

Interpreting the results.

Scientists are still unsure as to how green light works to bring the results it does and there aren’t yet more than a handful of studies investigating the exact effects of green light exposure on painful conditions. Of those studies, the limited sample size of participants can limit the predictive power that green light might help greater numbers of people the same way it did for the smaller group.

So far, it appears that green light exposure helps people with fibromyalgia and migraine headaches. These conditions are complex, not well understood, and have a great deal to do with neurology and psychology as opposed to an orthopedic issue like osteoarthritis. Could green light help reduce pain with other chronic conditions outside of fibromyalgia and migraine? It’s possible. Future research will hopefully elucidate on this possibility.

Does this mean green light exposure is the only non-drug alternative for pain management?

No.

It is well-established that regular exercise and physical activity can bring about a myriad of effects in our bodies, some of those being reductions in painful sensations. In fact, one could argue that exercise is hands-down the much better choice for improving mental and physical health than any passive modality.

Again, we have to ask ourselves: if there is an effective treatment for debilitating disease that is inexpensive, simple to implement, and had no bad side effects, why shouldn’t we use it? Well, if green light exposure therapy ends up making a person more reliant on passive treatments instead of active participation in things like exercise, then it could be seen as harmful, but it’s our opinion that, when used correctly, a new good tool can make all the difference towards success.

Want to try green light exposure as a way to reduce pain?

According to research, you might try:

  • Being exposed to lower intensity, green-colored light for 1-2 hours per day for at least 10 weeks
  • The green light you perceive could be produced by an LED source or natural light filtered through green-tinted lenses (think goggles or glasses)

Would you be willing to try a program like this to help control your pain? If you give it a try, let us know what you think about it by leaving a comment below!

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