AskDefine | Define phototherapy

Dictionary Definition

phototherapy n : the use of strong light to treat acne or hyperbilirubinemia of the newborn

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The use of light to treat disorders of the skin


Extensive Definition

Light therapy or phototherapy consists of exposure to daylight or to specific wavelengths of light using lasers, LEDs, fluorescent lamps, dichroic lamps or very bright, full-spectrum light, for a prescribed amount of time and, in some cases, at a specific time of day. It has proven effective in treating Acne vulgaris, seasonal affective disorder, and is part of the standard treatment regimen for delayed sleep phase syndrome. It has recently been shown effective in non-seasonal depression. Proponents claim demonstrable benefits for skin conditions such as psoriasis.

Skin related

Acne vulgaris

Blue/red light treatment

Sunlight was long known to improve acne, and this was thought to be due to antibacterial and other effects of the ultraviolet spectrum; which cannot be used as a treatment due to long-term skin damage. However, artificial UV didn't work as well as sunlight.
It was found that some of the visible violet light, present in sunlight, in the range 405-420 nm activates a porphyrin (Coproporphyrin III) in Propionibacterium acnes which damages and ultimately kills the bacteria by releasing singlet oxygen. A total of 320 J/cm2 of light within this range renders the bacteria non viable . This part of the spectrum is just outside the ultraviolet and produces little if any tanning or sunburn.
Application of the light for 3 consecutive days has been shown to reduce the bacteria in the pores by 99.9%. Since there are few porphyrins naturally found in the skin, the treatment is believed safe except in patients with porphyria; although eye protection is necessary due to light sensitive chemicals in the retina. The light is usually created by fluorescent lamps, bright LEDs or dichroic filament bulbs.
Treatment is often accompanied with application of red light which has been shown to activate ATP in human skin cells (essentially a photobiomodulation effect), and seems to improve response rates.
Overall improvements of on average 76% for 80% of patients occurs over 3 months; most studies show that it performs better than benzoyl peroxide and the treatment is far better tolerated. However, approximately 10% of users see no improvement.

Psoriasis and eczema

A feature of psoriasis is localised inflammation mediated by the immune system. UV radiation is known to suppress the immune system and reduce inflammatory responses. Light therapy for skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema use UVA (315-400nm waveband) or UVB (280-315nm waveband) light waves. UVA, combined with a drug taken orally, is known as PUVA treatment. Narrow Band UVB is the 310nm wave length and is given as a light therapy treatment rather than full spectrum UVB.


Tanning is caused by the effects of two different types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA and UVB. UV exposure in doses used in tanning parlors may be associated with carcinogenesis.

Wound healing and neuropathy

Monochromatic infrared light emitted at a wavelength of 890nm has been shown effective through limited clinical studies, to help restore sensation and reduce pain in patients with neuropathy, and to improve circulation, thus increasing the healing rate, of non-healing ulcers. It is thought that the infrared light helps to release nitric oxide into the bloodstream, which aids in increasing local circulation and improving blood flow. People with diabetes have poor circulation due to their naturally low levels of nitric oxide and sedentary habits.

Mood and sleep related

Seasonal affective disorder

While full sunlight is preferred for seasonal affective disorder, there are a number of products (such as light boxes) using very intense artificial illumination that are effective for seasonal affective disorder. These lamps, at a prescribed distance, provide 10,000 lux directed angularly at the user's eyes, without harmful ultraviolet radiation.
Newer research indicates that using a lower intensity of certain wavelengths of light, i.e., the "blue" wavelengths, may be at least as efficacious as using 10,000 lux, at least until one approaches old age, when blue light is no longer more effective than red or green. The most effective wavelengths of blue light are given as ranging between 460 nm and 485 nm by most sources, with some sources specifying peak photopigment sensitivity at 479 nm (in mice).

Non-seasonal depression

Only recently have clinical studies been conducted which specifically excluded all patients with any degree of seasonality. Before these studies, there was suspicion that any depressed patients who benefitted from light treatment were really only having the SAD component of their depression treated. However, light therapy is now an established treatment for depression, regardless of seasonality. One advantage it may have compared with drugs is that results may appear more quickly; antidepressant drugs typically take several weeks to reach full effectiveness.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome

In the treatment of delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), the timing of light exposure is critical. The light must be provided as soon after spontaneous awakening as possible to achieve the desired effect, as shown by the phase response curve for light in humans. Some users have reported success with lights that turn on shortly before awakening (dawn simulation).

Neonatal jaundice

Light energy creates isomerization of the bilirubin and consequently transformation into compounds that the newborn can excrete via urine and stools.

Jet lag

Light therapy is considered a viable treatment for jet lag. Exposure to bright light during the appropriate time periods before, during and after air travel can reduce the symptoms of jet lag and accelerate the recalibration of the body clock. NASA has used timed doses of bright light to prepare astronauts for late night launches since 1991.


Within the tanning and spa industry the term "heliotherapy" has become popular to describe medical therapy by exposure to light, usually in the UVA/UVB range. This could include direct sunlight but more often refers to the use of tanning beds, lamps and booths which make use of both ultraviolet and infrared. The treatment of psoriasis, eczema, vitamin D deficiency and seasonal affective disorder are included. As with any exposure to UV, there are some risks associated, but these are usually outweighed by the benefits provided by the treatments. Often, UV treatments are given at a doctor's office, but it is becoming more common for a doctor to prescribe regular visits in a tanning bed for persons who have moderate problems, as this is lower in UV than medical devices, and is more convenient and less expensive for the patient. In very rare and extreme cases, the purchase of home tanning beds is prescribed by doctors and covered by insurance.
There is also evidence that exposure to some frequencies of light (UV in particular) causes the body to release small amounts of endorphins, which would explain the benefit for some disorders such as SAD, as endorphins are often called "the body's own morphine", as well as the concerns for potential tanning addiction, not to be confused with what is commonly called tanorexia, a psychological syndrome wherein patients see themselves as pale, even if they have a substantial tan.


Safety of phototherapy

Ultraviolet light causes progressive damage to human skin. This is mediated by genetic damage, collagen damage, as well as destruction of vitamin A and vitamin C in the skin and free radical generation.
Visible blue light has been suggested to cause DNA breaks, but carcinogenesis has not been demonstrated, and enzymes within the cells are believed to repair the breaks reasonably well. However, cancer has been induced in cells with deliberately damaged repair mechanisms. Also, researchers have questioned whether limiting blue light exposure could reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration (ARMD).
Modern phototherapy lamps used in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder and delayed sleep-phase syndrome do not emit ultraviolet light and are considered safe and effective for the intended purpose, as long as photosensitizing drugs are not being taken at the same time and in the absence of any existing eye conditions. Light therapy is a mood altering treatment, and just as with drug treatments, there is a possibility of triggering a manic state from a depressive state, causing anxiety, and other side effects. While these side-effects are usually controllable, it is recommended that patients undertake light-therapy under the supervision of an experienced clinician, rather than attempting to self-medicate.


There are few absolute contraindications to light therapy, although there are some circumstances in which caution is required. These include when the patient 1) has a condition that might render his or her eyes more vulnerable to phototoxicity, 2) has a tendency toward mania, 3) has a photosensitive skin condition, or 4) is taking a photosensitizing herb (such as St. John's wort) or medication. Patients with porphyria should avoid most forms of light therapy. Patients on certain drugs like methotrxate or chloroquine should use caution with light therapy as there is a chance that these drugs could cause porphyria

Side effects

Side effects of light therapy for sleep phase disorders include jumpiness or jitteriness, feeling "wired," headache, and nausea. Some nondepressive physical complaints (such as poor vision and skin rash or irritation) may improve with light therapy (M. Terman and Terman 1999).


phototherapy in Czech: Fototerapie
phototherapy in Danish: Lysterapi
phototherapy in German: Lichttherapie
phototherapy in Spanish: Fototerapia
phototherapy in French: Luminothérapie
phototherapy in Hebrew: פוטותרפיה
phototherapy in Dutch: Lichttherapie
phototherapy in Japanese: 光療法
phototherapy in Norwegian: Lysterapi
phototherapy in Polish: Fototerapia
phototherapy in Swedish: Ljusterapi
phototherapy in Turkish: Fototerapi
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