Light therapy or phototherapy is an alternative treatment based on light exposure for various disorders. This procedure, which is also called light box therapy, involves the use of light brighter than regular indoor lighting, but significantly less bright than sunlight.
1. What Can Light Therapy Cure?
– Atopic dermatitis
– Other skin disorders
– Sleep disturbance
– Premenstrual syndrome
– Mental disorders
– Bipolar disorders
Under the treatment, patients are exposed directly to full-spectrum bright light. The patient either sits down, if a light box is used as the source, or has some degree of mobility if a light visor is used. The duration of the exposure depends on the seriousness of the condition, reduction or elimination of the symptoms and light strength. Depression is one condition that is eliminated through the therapy. The affected individual’s biological clock, or the natural course of one’s waking and sleeping hours, is gradually normalized following light therapy. The process involves gradually increasing the time exposed to a high-intensity fluorescent lamp from about 30 minutes up to about 2 hours every morning – the time when the therapy is said to be most effective. Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression caused by the absence of or limited exposure to sunlight during fall and winter. The use of light therapy has been cited by up to 90% of individuals with SAD as helpful in making them feel better, possibly because the treatment takes the place of sunlight exposure. SAD symptoms could take as long as three weeks before they are relieved through the therapy.
3. Not A Replacement For Traditional Care
Although the treatment is safe, most experts do not see light therapy as a replacement to traditional medical care. However, the approach is considered a good complement to other therapies. Patients should visit their health practitioner if treatment fails to eliminate symptoms of depression, or specially if they worsen, following an extended period of time. As with regular therapy, some side effects have also been observed with light therapy. These include headache, sweating, eyestrain, nausea, and agitation. More extreme and adverse effects include skin damage, eye cancer and skin and genital cancer. Some patients have also reported difficulty in falling asleep, although these are mostly individuals having the treatment towards the end of the day. Relief from insomnia is achieved mainly by reducing light exposure time and having the therapy earlier in the day, or by applying dawn simulation. The therapy is not advisable for individuals with sensitive skin and eyes.
4. Light Booth Studies – Does This Actually Work?
Light boxes, ultra violet booths, commercial tanning beds and related equipment also pose the question of cost. If the doctor being consulted has these equipment in the clinic, the problem would be more of a time issue, or ensuring daily or regular visits. Some companies have light therapy equipment for rent, although insurance coverage may not include these as part of the treatment. Psychiatric research from the Chapel Hill School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina has found comparable results between phototherapy, or light therapy, and antidepressant drug therapy in the treatment of SAD and other mood disorders. The 2005 study applied systematic statistical analysis to earlier clinical literature covering 20 randomized studies. These studies focused on 18- to 65-year-old adults who exhibited mood disorder and were grouped into four treatment classes: bright light for non-seasonal depression, bright light for SAD, integrated bright light-regular antidepressant use for non=seasonal sufferers and dawn simulation.
Scientists found that the elimination of methodologically flawed studies from the controlled set and meta-analysis of the remaining organized material established the efficacy of light therapy for SAD and depression. UNC psychiatry chairman Dr. Robert Golden, who is also vice dean of the UNC medical school, noted that light therapy intervention delivered results comparable to traditional depression treatments as detailed in medical literature. Although the scientists concluded that light therapy is an effective treatment for SAD and non-seasonal disorders, they emphasized that the research did not establish the treatment’s safety and/or negative side effects because of limited related data. Researchers also did not look at the effects of light therapy on the aged, children and adolescents.