Light therapy has taken the world by storm in the last few decades. All kinds of devices are now available to treat a huge range of concerns, from age spots to seasonal depression. But did you know research indicates light therapy may help your eyes as well?
How can that be, when research also shows light therapy may cause damage to the eyes?
The key lies in what kind of light therapy is used on the eyes. Let’s take a further look at the available science on light therapy for eyes.
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy, also referred to as phototherapy or photobiomodulation, isolates specific wavelengths from the light spectrum and shines them onto the body to treat a range of health conditions. Home-use light therapy devices produce full-spectrum, infrared, red, green, or blue wavelengths using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to trigger beneficial effects in the body’s cells.
We know from many clinical studies that light therapy can have particularly beneficial effects on the body’s soft tissues. For example, specific wavelengths of red and near-infrared (NIR) light have been shown to reduce inflammation and promote tissue repair, making red light therapy an excellent treatment for conditions like rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, and even acne.
Specific wavelengths of red light have also been shown to improve wound and burn healing. Cells absorb these wavelengths, using them to reduce oxidative stress and produce energy. Scientists have also found that these cells produce new blood vessels and tissues at higher rates, leading to better healing and less pain.
Because inflammation plays a major role in injuries and burns, red light therapy’s inflammation reduction also plays a role in reducing pain and improving the healing process.
Light Therapy for Eyes
Many light therapy skin care products address specific skin concerns like wrinkles. Because people use these products on their faces, scientists have researched the effects of light therapy on eye health.
Is Eye Protection Necessary During Light Therapy?
Most physicians agree that the risk of damage to the eyes from proper use of LED light therapy is minimal and largely theoretical. Light therapy has been tested in thousands of peer-reviewed research studies and demonstrates an overall excellent safety profile.
However, some wavelengths of light may pose a greater risk for the eyes than others. Infrared light (around 850 nm), for example, is outside the visible light spectrum and may be capable of causing some eye damage and increasing the likelihood of cataracts. Some scientists worry that because infrared (IR) light cannot be seen, consumers may use less caution with devices that emit IR light, leading to eye damage.
Many light therapy masks include blue light in addition to red light for its antimicrobial properties. However, prolonged exposure to blue light wavelengths may pose a problem for eye health. Blue light wavelengths are much shorter and higher energy than red light wavelengths, and they have the potential to cause retinal damage in some people.
Consequently, consumers should wear eye protection when using light therapy masks or other products that emit blue light or IR light. Most research seems to indicate that eye protection isn’t needed with LED red light or near-infrared (NIR) light therapy.
Could Light Therapy Help the Eyes?
Despite the need for eye protection with some wavelengths of light, research suggests that other wavelengths of light may be beneficial for eye health.
Red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths have emerged as the most beneficial forms of light therapy for eyes. For example, studies show that NIR light is able to penetrate the tissues of the eye and even help the brain to recover from stroke and neurological degeneration.
Here are just a few promising results that red and NIR light therapy could hold for eye health.
Increasing Blood Flow to the Eyes
One study of healthy participants showed that low-level laser irradiation with red to NIR wavelengths, when applied to the common carotid artery, beneficially increased blood flow to the areas behind the eyes.
Treating Retinal Damage and Degeneration
The results of several other studies, such as this 2017 study and this 2018 study, examine red light therapy with a 670 nm wavelength on retinas with photo-oxidative damage. The research showed that red light therapy may be able to decrease inflammation and slow the progress of retinal degeneration due to injury.
Mitigating Age-Related Vision Decline
As the eyes age, their mitochondria produce less and less adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the source of cellular energy. Because of this loss of cellular energy, the eyes begin to progressively lose some of their function.
One well-known function of red light therapy is stimulating ATP production in cells. New research is investigating whether this function can be safely applied to the eyes of older adults.
One recent study shows that 670-nm red light therapy can improve color vision and color contrast in aging adults. Scientists administered a single three-minute session of red light therapy to patients’ aging retinas one morning per week. The therapy returned the patients’ color contrast levels to those of younger adults for an entire week. Researchers note that the time of day during which the light therapy is applied makes a significant difference in its effectiveness.
Another study which applied the same red light therapy to the eyes daily for two weeks achieved similar results.
Other studies note that the anti-inflammatory and energy-promoting effects of red light therapy may indicate that this is an effective, noninvasive treatment for age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.
Always Consult a Physician
As always, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider with experience in light therapy before using light therapy for your eyes.
Be sure your provider is aware of any medications you’re taking. Certain medications can cause photosensitivity and increase the possibility of eye injury. If you have any special concerns or conditions related to your eyes or vision, be sure to disclose those as well.