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Phototherapy: How it works and what are the benefits

Phototherapy is a treatment that uses focused doses of light to help improve certain medical conditions. The light can stem from natural sunlight or artificial sources of light like special lamps. Red light therapy is a type of phototherapy and by far one of the safest forms of light therapy available to date. If you’re wondering whether red light therapy could help improve your medical condition, how phototherapy works and what its many benefits could be for you, read on for your ultimate guide to understanding red light phototherapy.

History of Phototherapy and Its Evolution

The concept of using light to treat a number of conditions, especially skin conditions, is not a new concept. The use of phototherapy as a treatment dates back almost 3500 years ago when ancient Egyptians regularly practised heliotherapy in treating skin conditions like leucoderma. However, with technology, light therapy evolved into something quite different.

Not long after Edison’s invention of the lightbulb, a Danish scientist discovered that concentrated electric light could speed up wound healing for lupus patients. It would take another 70 years for the first low-level laser therapy device to be developed in 1967. It was only in the late 1990s that modifications to LEDs evolved into red light therapy as we know it today.

How Phototherapy Works

Red light therapy uses red LED light to stimulate the mitochondrial cells. These cells absorb light particles to produce energy by releasing ATP, a chemical compound responsible for cellular energy. When there is increased cellular energy, the result is increased oxygen in the bloodstream, better circulation and faster cell regeneration. Thus, exposing the skin to red light can help reduce inflammation, itching and other symptoms associated with a variety of skin conditions as well as improve general well-being.

Phototherapy can be administered in various ways, including via lamps, booths and panels. The type of phototherapy you receive will depend on your condition and your doctor’s recommendation. A course of treatment typically lasts several weeks or months and is usually done multiple times a week.

Types of Phototherapy

There are several different types of phototherapy that can be used to treat a variety of conditions. The most common type of phototherapy used by dermatologists is ultraviolet light therapy, which uses either ultraviolet A (UVA) or ultraviolet B (UVB) light to treat conditions like psoriasis, vitiligo, newborn jaundice and atopic dermatitis.

Other types of light therapy which do not use UV rays include:

  • Infrared therapy, which uses imperceptible red light and heat to penetrate the skin and promote tissue and cell healing;
  • LED therapy, which uses different coloured LED light, including red and blue light, to target specific areas of the skin (red light therapy falls under this umbrella);
  • Pulsed light therapy, which uses high-intensity pulses of light to improve the appearance of the skin and for permanent hair removal.

There are a number of different terms for red light therapy which include:

  • Low-level laser therapy
  • Photobiomodulation
  • Phototherapy
  • Non-thermal LED therapy
  • Cold laser therapy
  • Biostimulation

Uses of Phototherapy

There are many different uses of phototherapy that treat various health conditions. The conditions treated depend on the type of light therapy used. Some of the most common phototherapy benefits when using red light therapy include:

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): This is a type of depression that occurs during the winter months when there is less natural daylight, which can reduce levels of mood-boosting serotonin. Phototherapy can be used to help increase the amount of light exposure and thereby improve mood.
  • Chronic Pain: Red light therapy is commonly used as a treatment for pain associated with musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis, scoliosis and carpal tunnel. Red light therapy works to reduce inflammation which is often the cause of pain.
  • Insomnia: For those struggling to get a decent night of sleep, phototherapy can help regulate melatonin production and the body’s circadian rhythm for better sleep patterns.
  • Athletic Performance & Recovery: Because RLT increases energy levels, reduces inflammation and speeds up tissue healing, it can not only improve athletic endurance and performance but speed up your post-workout recovery.
  • Acne: While UV phototherapy is often recommended for acne treatment, repeated exposure can have other damaging effects on the skin cells. Red light therapy used on its own or in conjunction with blue light therapy can radically improve the appearance of acne by reducing inflammation and slowing down sebum production, which is responsible for clogging pores. You could try an at-home red light face mask if you don’t have the budget for a dermatologist.
  • Psoriasis: This is a skin condition that causes red, scaly patches on the skin. Phototherapy can help reduce the size of the patches and improve symptoms.

Phototherapy Risks

Red light therapy does not carry the same risks as UV phototherapy because it is an entirely natural process. It is painless, safe and when used as per the instructions, void of risks. There have been reports of minor burns and blistering when people have fallen asleep with the devices on their bodies, exceeding the recommended treatment times, or if power cords have been damaged. LumiRed only sells FDA-approved devices that are not associated with the same risks as UV phototherapy.

While red light phototherapy is considered to be safe, there are some potential risks and precautions to take if going the UV route. Risks include damage to skin cells, increased risk of skin cancer and eye sensitivity.

Key Takeaway

Phototherapy is a safe and effective treatment for a number of common ailments and offers a number of benefits to patients. It is a low-risk, safe and affordable alternative treatment that can be administered in the comfort of your home, making it a convenient option for those with busy schedules.

Sources:

Hönigsmann H. History of phototherapy in dermatology. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2013 Jan;12(1):16-21. doi: 10.1039/c2pp25120e. PMID: 22739720.

Ajiboye, T. (2022, August 7). Phototherapy: Uses, Benefits, and Risks. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/phototherapy-overview-4177939

Phototherapy for Skin Conditions. (n.d.). UVA Health. https://uvahealth.com/services/dermatology/phototherapy

Pictures of the Benefits of Light Therapy. (2022, April 13). WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/ss/slideshow-benefits-of-light-therapy

Cobb, C., Cafasso, J., Wilson, D. R., & Cherney, K. (2018, May 11). Red Light Therapy: Uses, Benefits, and Risks. Healthline. 

Cobb, C., Johnson, J., & Barrell, A. (2019, July 29). Red light therapy: Benefits and side effects. Medical News Today.

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