“They’ve actually gotten worse in my old age,” said 70-year-old Ann Jones who has been suffering from chronic migraines since childhood. The resident of Tucson, Ariz, had tried every cure she could find, besides surgery, and has found no relief. Jones experiences about twenty-four migraines a month.
Some treatments were helpful initially but as time wore on, its effects wore off. Others brought on side effects and she couldn’t stay on them for long.
“It was pretty life-changing and debilitating,” Jones said. “I could either plow through them and sometimes I simply couldn’t.”
In 2018, her doctor brought up a study that was beginning at the University of Arizona where researchers were testing participants with chronic pain and migraines to see if daily exposure to green light could relieve their symptoms.
Jones wasn’t keen on the idea at first. She thought, “This is going to be one more thing that doesn’t work.”
Still, she thought it would be worth a try.
Jones began to spend two hours a day in a dark room with a white light, which was a part of the control group. In the second half of the study, Jones sat in a room with a string of green LED lights.
For the first month, Jones suffered through her usual migraines, but two weeks later, she began to notice changes. Consecutive days would pass without a migraine, and even when one would come, the pain would be less severe than before the trial.
“I got to the point where I was having about four migraines a month, if that many, and I felt like I had just been cut free,” Jones said.
Other patients in the study, which included about 25 people, also noticed changes. For some, they took only a few days; for others, like Jones, they took several weeks. According to Dr. Mohab Ibrahim, the study’s principal investigator and associate professor at the University of Arizona,  the intensity of most people’s migraines decreased by about 60%, and they went from suffering through about 20 migraines a month to only six.
The results of the study have not been published yet, but the researchers see potential for a drug-free treatment for people with migraines and other chronic pain conditions. They have done previous experiments with the green light and successfully reduced chronic pain in rats. 
Green Light Therapy
Ibrahim, who is the director for the chronic pain clinic at Banner-University Medical Center, has a green LED light device in his office in Tuscan. He became interested in light therapy when his brother spoke about sitting in a garden until his own headaches subsided. He wondered about the particular color green and how light could be used as treatment.
“There was a healthy dose of skepticism,” he said. “It was kind of strange. Why are you using light to treat pain?”
After all, Ibrahim is an anesthesiologist with a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology, and considers “drugs as his tools.” Still, the idea was too good to pass up if it would prove to be helpful.
He proceeded with his rat study, where exposure to the green light decreased the pain in rodents.
“We were able to reproduce it over and over and over again to the point where you just had to follow the story,” he said.
The Healing Power of Green
Rodrigo Noseda lead a study at Harvard’s Medical School to look at photophobia, also known as light sensitivity, which is common to experience during migraines. The researchers found that green light has the potential to decrease the intensity of a headache, as opposed to other colors which can worsen the pain. Green also can bring on positive emotions during migraines; while red and other shades can bring on negative emotions. 
In a 2017 study, Ibrahim and his associates fitted contact lenses onto their test rats. Some were tinted green and some were clear. The rats that saw green either through their lenses or from a green light had a decrease in their pain intensity.
“We basically made the conclusion that whatever effect is happening is taking place through the visual system,” he said. “That’s why when we recruited patients, we told them you cannot fall asleep when you’re undergoing this therapy.”
The National Institutes of Health awarded funding to Ibrahim for his research,  and he is looking into using green light to treat conditions like fibromyalgia, nerve pain related to HIV and chemotherapy, and interstitial cystitis, a painful bladder condition. 
Treating Pain with Light
“The link between light and pain is a promising area of research,” said Mary Heinricher, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Neurological Surgery at Oregon Health and Science University. However, she is not entirely convinced that color is the most critical aspect for decreasing pain. 
“The effects of the green light is pretty subtle,” she said. “We need the parallel work showing what are the relevant neural circuits if we are going to make anything tremendously useful for people.”
Heinricher agrees that medical professionals tend to rely on drugs for treatment without considering the effects of a person’s environment.
Her team is currently examining the levels of photosensitivity for veterans who suffer from chronic pain. She believes that photosensitivity can predict a person’s level of pain. 
“I was quite surprised,” she said. “If you had asked me this five years ago, I would have said no way.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough proof to be certain that green light is a beneficial method for treating headaches. The research is promising but has a long way to go before becoming regular.
Looking Through Green-Colored Glasses
As for Ann Jones, she is keeping her green light device since when she stops the treatment, her migraines return.
“I made a commitment to go back on the green lights daily,” she said. “The very next day I did not have migraine, and for five straight days I didn’t have a migraine.”
The biggest difficulty is making time for sitting in a dark room with just a green light, so researchers at Duke University are looking for wearable alternatives, such as colored glasses. 
Some practitioners aren’t waiting for further studies. Duane Lowe is a chiropractor who read Ibrahim’s research and decided to recommend his patients with chronic pain to wear green-tinted glasses for a week, with a full disclosure that the practice is experimental.
“After a very short period of time, patients were coming back giving very positive reviews,” he said. “I didn’t actually have to worry about whether these studies have been done, because the side effects of giving someone green glasses are almost nil.”
Ibrahim has the same idea. “In my opinion, the most ideal drug or therapy is something that’s first safe, effective and affordable.”  And hopefully available very soon!
- Mohab M. Ibrahim, PhD, MD. https://anesth.medicine.arizona.edu/profile/mohab-m-ibrahim-phd-md
- Mohab M. Ibrahim. Long-lasting antinociceptive effects of green light in acute and chronic pain in rats https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5242385/#R43 February 1, 2018
- Rodrigo Noseda PhD. Harvard Catalyst Profiles. https://connects.catalyst.harvard.edu/Profiles/display/Person/85981
- Arthritis Center. UAAC Advisory Board Member Mohab M. Ibrahim, MD, PhD, Awarded $1.7 Million NIH Grant. https://arthritis.arizona.edu/news/uaac-advisory-board-member-mohab-m-ibrahim-md-phd-awarded-17-million-nih-grant July 15, 2018
- Mohab Ibrahim.The Effect of Light Therapy on Chronic Pain. Clinical Trials. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03677206?term=Mohab+Ibrahim&draw=1&rank=1 September 19, 2018
- Mary Magdalen Heinricher, Ph.D. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Funding/About-Funding/Javits-Award/Mary-Magdalen-Heinricher
- Mary M. Heinricher. A possible neural mechanism for photosensitivity in chronic pain https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4794405/ April 2016
- Opioid Sparing Potential of Light-Induced Analgesia. Clinical Trials. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03890419?term=Padma+gulur&draw=2&rank=3 March 26, 2019
- Will Stone. Researchers Explore A Drug-Free Idea To Relieve Chronic Pain: Green Light. NPR https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/12/15/787138928/researchers-explore-a-drug-free-idea-to-relieve-chronic-pain-green-light December 15, 2019
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