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Light Therapy: A Bright Idea

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Updated October 08, 2009

by Kimberly Read

Phototherapy, also known as light therapy and light box therapy, is the use of light to treat disorders. It is most commonly used to treat skin disorders such as psoriasis and hyperbilirubinemia, which causes jaundice in newborns. Light therapy has also become a widely used remedy for mental illnesses such as seasonal affective disorder and some research supports it benefits for sleep disturbances, depression, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder (Oren et al, 2001) and premenstrual syndrome (Steiner & Born, 2000).

In the treatment of mental illnesses, phototherapy generally involves full-spectrum bright light exposure directly onto the eyes using a light source such as a light box or a light visor. With a light box, the patient sits in front of the light; the visor allows for more mobility during this time. The sessions are usually in the morning for a period of time ranging from thirty minutes to two hours. The duration of the sessions depends on the strength of the light as well as the severity and responsiveness of symptoms (Sato, 1997). For seasonal affective disorder, the treatment is generally used throughout the problematic season (usually winter). For other disorders such as bipolar disorder, light therapy may only be used for short periods to alleviate the severity or shorten the length of a depressive episode.

The advantages of light therapy include the fact that it is rather non-invasive with relatively few and minor side effects. Additionally, a significant number of people respond very quickly to this treatment.

The disadvantages of light therapy comprise the daily commitment of time and investment in the equipment. Some health care providers have the light boxes available in their offices, but this necessitates a daily visit to the doctor. There are companies that rent the equipment. However, insurance does not always cover the expenses associated with this type of treatment. Also, relapse of symptoms is usually quite rapid after cessation of treatment (Sato, 1997).

The reported side effects of light therapy include eye-strain, headaches and insomnia (Sato, 1997). Insomnia is reduced by scheduling the sessions in the morning. All of the side effects may be lessened by using a variation known as dawn simulation in which the intensity of the light is increased slowly as if the sun were rising. In some cases, symptoms of mania appeared to be initiated by this therapy. In very rare cases, some women reported menstrual irregularities during treatment (Pjrek et al, 2004).

In conclusion, it is important to note that light therapy is a medical treatment. Before undertaking this type of regime, be sure to discuss it with your health care provider.

References

Oren, D.A., Cubells, J.F., & Litsch, S. (2001, December). Bright light therapy for schizoaffective disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158(12), 2086-2087.

Pjrek, E., Winkler, D., & Willeit, M. (2004, June). Menstrual disturbances - A rare side-effect of bright-light therapy. Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 7(2), 239-240.

Sato, Toru. (1997). Seasonal affective disorder and phototherapy: A critical review. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 28, 164-169.

Steiner, M. & Born, L. (2000). Advances in the diagnosis and treatment of premenstrual dysphoria. In: Managing depressive disorders by Katharine J. Palmer and Chung Kwai. Hong Kong: Adis International Publications, 139-157.

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