A woman is shown in three different positions: sitting, sitting with her knee up, and standing. In each frame, she is illuminated by red light.

Can Red Light Therapy Help Pain?

When you live your life experiencing chronic pain, your entire daily routine can become an experiment – a trial and error contest into what helps reduce it and what makes it worse. Of course, this also goes for IBS, where what one eats and drinks and how and under what conditions, also can play into whether it remains under control or whether it brings on a flare.

I have had IBS for over two decades and though it is a painful condition, it has waxed and waned. I have been no stranger to pain in my life, but like with IBS, it used to come and go. That was, until about five years ago when chronic pain became a mainstay in my life – a daily rather than monthly or weekly visitor. And while the level of pain fluctuates, I no longer have pain-free days. As with my IBS, this set me on a course of research and discovery about what can help it and what can hurt it or make it worse.

My experience with red light therapy for IBS

Over the course of my experimentation and discovery, I came across something called red light therapy. Despite being well-read in pain, it was new to me. I decided to try it out. When I first got my red light machine by Joov, which is FDA-approved, I was a little wary and unsure. It was also summer, which for me tends to make my pain worse. Unfortunately, red light does give off some heat, and so the last thing I wanted to do was add more heat to me in a sweltering apartment, so I shelved it. I waited for the fall.

In early September, my back went into severe spasm. I could barely walk or move much at all for a solid week. Moving around was excruciating. I don't know what set off this event, but I panicked. A few years back, this had been my norm, but I had finally knocked down my pain to more manageable levels. I broke out the big guns and started using up all my tools in my toolbox for pain, from hot baths to topicals to NSAIDs (even though they aggravate IBS). My IBS also got worse because it tends to when my back problems act up.

Finally, I broke out the red light therapy and started using it on my back and hips for at least a half-hour a day. And I noticed it definitely helped. While it didn't help alone, it seemed to finally help tip me over into a healing phase and spasms in my back seemed to subside to the point where I could walk again. And with that, my bowels also relaxed and my IBS flare resolved.

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Research about red light therapy

What does science say about red light therapy? From what I've read so far, results from some studies seem to be encouraging.

For instance, a study published in 2016 looking at rats with spinal cord injuries treated with red light therapy found it reduced pain sensitization. Specifically, the study concluded that: "...a simple yet inexpensive treatment regime of red light reduces the development of hypersensitivity along with sensorimotor improvements following spinal cord injury and may, therefore, offer new hope for a currently treatment-resistant pain condition." And a much older study published in 1992 of 50 elderly patients with disabling osteoarthritis in their knees found that those patients treated with red light therapy all experienced some improvement in their pain, while none did in the placebo group. The study determined that: "Low-power light therapy is effective in relieving pain and disability in degenerative osteoarthritis of the knee."2

Of course, some might ask, what does a knee have to do with my IBS? But to me, what I note is that whenever I experience pain in my body, at any significant level, it tends to also feed into gut issues for me. The first study talked about pain sensitization, and research has established that pain hypersensitivity is often connected to IBS. Thereby, I would guess that anything that can reduce pain overall or in certain areas of the body, can help also reduce IBS symptoms. At least, that has also been confirmed by my firsthand experience. Of course, everyone is different, so anyone considering red light therapy should contact their doctor and discuss first.

Starting next year, I plan on concentrating the light on my low belly and seeing if it has a more direct benefit for my digestion and abdominal pain.

Have you ever tried red light therapy? Did it help your pain or IBS? Please answer in the comments below!

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