Healthy Body

Green Light Therapy Is Making Waves for Treating Chronic Pain and Headaches—What Does the Research Say?

Photo: Stocksy/ohlamour studio
It can be difficult to manage chronic pain, which can make daily life feel exceptionally—and understandably—frustrating. Depending on your symptoms, managing pain might involve a combo of medication and lifestyle changes, such as stress relief and exercise. But there might be another treatment that can help you find relief from migraines and headaches: green light therapy.

If you’ve got a pulse on the wellness world, you’re likely familiar with other types of light therapy. It’s well-known for managing low vitamin D levels and seasonal depression, and possibly even skin concerns, such as acne. The new kid on the block is green light therapy, and it’s still a developing area of research. But experts have found that it may improve symptoms of chronic pain.

What is green light therapy, exactly?

First, a quick primer on light therapy. Also known as phototherapy, light therapy is a treatment that involves exposure to light. The exact frequency of light and the optimal length of time for exposure is up for debate, but what is certain is that different colors of LED light have the potential to help treat or manage various conditions. As mentioned, blue light therapy is sometimes used to treat acne, while red light therapy is touted for muscle recovery, eczema, and psoriasis, just to name a few uses.

Green light therapy is a form of phototherapy that uses—you guessed it—exposure to green light. There are a few working theories as to why green light may reduce pain, with most of the research centered on headaches (including migraine attacks) and fibromyalgia.

How do green LED lights help with headaches and pain?

It’s worth mentioning that experts are still learning about green light therapy for pain, and the alleged effects aren’t fully researched. Here’s what we know so far:

It might interact with cells in your eyes that are partly responsible for triggering headaches

Perhaps the area with the most research so far is on how green light could work for migraines and headaches. “Migraines are often worsened by bright light, and many [people with migraine] experience something called photophobia or light sensitivity,” says Deepti Agarwal, MD, director of interventional and integrative pain management at Case Integrative Health.

The reason? Light exposure produces electrical signals in the retina, a light-sensitive layer of cells on the back of your eye. According to Dr. Agarwal, these signals are sent to the visual cortex, which is the part of the brain that processes visual info from your eyes. Depending on the frequency and intensity of the light, these signals can worsen headaches.

That being said, it seems counterintuitive that light therapy could help with pain. Yet, there’s a “specific band of green light [that] generates the smallest signal compared to other colors, so it’s much less likely to exacerbate a migraine attack,” notes Dr. Agarwal. In fact, it might even keep headaches at bay, according to new research.

In a small study published in Cephalalgia, researchers examined the effects of green light in people who were prone to frequent headaches. They found that one to two hours of green light exposure reduced the number of headache days, noting that it may be related to the effect of green light on those retinal cells.

It may help you sleep better, which, in turn, reduces pain

There also might be some interplay between green light, sleep quality, and pain. One case report involving a 66-year-old man with chronic headaches and color blindness showed some interesting results. The person couldn’t tell the difference between green, yellow, orange, and red colors—however, after being exposed to green light, they reported a drop in headache pain, but not in headache days. Interestingly, the individual also slept better after being exposed to green light. According to the researchers, sleep quality is connected to chronic pain, suggesting that the pain-relieving effects of green light may be linked to better sleep.

This study is important [because] it may help our understanding of how different photosensitive cells may respond to the pain-relieving effects of green light therapy,” says Dr. Agarwal.

On a separate note, researchers have also explored how green light may affect pain from fibromyalgia and came to a similar conclusion. This small study found that green light therapy significantly reduced average pain intensity in people with fibromyalgia, calling out the potential benefits of green light on sleep, and how that might help reduce pain.

It might change how the body responds to pain

Again, the exact mechanism for how green light therapy may work to reduce pain is unclear, but according to Dr. Agarwal, it may be due to the way green light affects neurological pathways involved in pain.

The working theory is that it might involve a link between visual light input (exposure to green light), activation of opioid receptors in the brain (i.e., molecules that respond to pain), and other neurotransmitters involved in pain pathways, says Noah Rosen, MD, director of the Headache Center at Northwell Health.

"We know the health benefits of light exposure for other conditions, but it remains an understudied and underutilized area."—Noah Rosen, MD, director of the Headache Center at Northwell Health

Experts think the future of green light therapy is promising

While it’s clear that light affects the body, researchers are still learning how green light can help manage pain. But both experts agree that the treatment holds potential. “Preliminary data suggests that there could be a role for green light therapy in chronic pain management,” says Dr. Agarwal. Dr. Rosen echoes this notion, adding that more work is needed to adapt the technology to practical, everyday use.

“We know the health benefits of light exposure for other conditions, but it remains an understudied and underutilized area,” explains Dr. Rosen. For chronic pain and migraine, in particular, green light therapy could benefit many people, especially if it allows them to reduce other medications, he says.

If you’re interested in trying green light therapy for migraines and or other pain, chat with a trusted provider first. It's possible to buy green light devices online, though these items currently aren’t held to any standards or regulations to ensure that they’re effective. Your doctor is the best person to give you the green light on, well, green light—and in some cases, suggest a product to use.

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