Red Light Therapy for Fibromyalgia: The Key to Lasting Relief?

Fibromyalgia is one of the most mystifying health conditions. Its causes are difficult to pin down, and when it comes to classifying it, it’s like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. In fact, despite there being a wealth of literature describing symptoms associated with the disease going back to the 19th century, the term fibromyalgia was only coined in 1976, and it remains controversial to this day, with many experts disputing whether fibromyalgia is a disease at all. This is mainly due to the fact that there is no specific diagnostic test for the condition, and that blood tests often show no abnormalities.


Not only does all this make fibromyalgia difficult to diagnose (way too often patients’ complaints are dismissed as psychosomatic or a result of depression), it makes it extremely challenging to treat as well, much to the dismay of those who suffer from it. 


Red light therapy is quickly emerging as a beacon of hope for those whose lives have ground to a halt due to this debilitating condition. It offers a safe, effective and affordable alternative to traditional treatments that are all too often ineffective due to the complex nature of fibromyalgia. But how exactly does red light therapy for fibromyalgia work? Before we get into that, let’s first go over what we know about this mysterious chronic condition.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

According to the CDC, fibromyalgia, or FM, is “a condition that causes pain all over the body (also known as widespread pain), sleep problems, fatigue, and also emotional and mental distress. People with fibromyalgia may be more sensitive to pain than people without fibromyalgia. This is called abnormal pain perception processing.” We know what you’re thinking. Could this definition be any more vague?


As mentioned above, there’s currently no clear-cut diagnostic test for FM. Ergo, doctors have to rely primarily on patients’ described symptoms and using diagnostic tests to rule out other diseases and conditions. It can be a long and frustrating process, especially since there’s such a wide range of symptoms. In fact, many patients are misdiagnosed as having depression or arthritis. Classic symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • Musculoskeletal pain: This can range from shooting pain to a dull, flu-like pain all over the body, and is usually exacerbated by exercise, stress, weather conditions, and time of day.
  • Stiffness: Arthritis-like stiffness is often reported, also exacerbated by factors such as exercise or time of day.
  • Tender points: These are points on the body (18 in total) that cause pain when touched in patients with FM. They’re located symmetrically on the back of the head, neck, shoulders, chest, upper back, inner elbows, buttocks, hips, and inner knees.
  • Fatigue: This can be one of the most debilitating aspects of fibromyalgia, causing patients’ careers and social lives to suffer, and generally preventing them from living a full and satisfying life. 
  • Sleep problems: People with FM tend to report greater difficulty falling asleep, more frequent waking during the night, and lower-quality sleep. They’re also more likely to have restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea. (Source)
  • Depression and anxiety: People with fibromyalgia are far more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than those without it. The link between these conditions is unclear. Some experts believe that they’re offshoots of the same parent affective disorder. It may also be a reaction to living with chronic pain and other symptoms of FM. 
  • Cognitive difficulties: Many people with FM report difficulties paying attention, focusing, and retaining new information. This is sometimes referred to as “brain fog” or “fibro fog”.


On top of these main symptoms is a virtual laundry list of comorbid conditions, that is, medical issues that FM sufferers are more likely to have. One study found that more than half of people with an FM diagnosis had seven or more chronic conditions. Some of these include:

  • Arthritis
  • Plantar fasciitis 
  • Migraines or headaches
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Obesity
  • Hypertension
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chronic pelvic pain
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder

As with depression and anxiety, it’s difficult to know whether one condition causes or exacerbates another. For instance, obesity could be due to pain and fatigue preventing the person from getting exercise and leading to poor diet choices. On the other hand, carrying extra weight may also raise the risk of FM.

What Causes Fibromyalgia?

Experts are unsure of what causes fibromyalgia, although evidence suggests there are a number of factors at play, including genetics, illness and infection, trauma, and stress. FM is considered to be a type of primary or functional pain. Pain that doesn’t have an obvious origin falls into this category. It is sometimes also called nociplastic pain, as some experts believe it’s an altered form of another type of pain known as nociceptive pain (this article on red light therapy for pain provides a more in-depth overview of the different types of pain).


One of the earliest discoveries into the functioning of FM is vasoconstriction, or the narrowing of blood vessels. Patients with FM tend to have abnormal blood-flow patterns in the brain, and it’s suspected that the burning pains and pins and needles sensation associated with the condition is attributed to impaired blood flow. 

Who Has Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia affects approximately 2% of US adults, with women being much more likely to suffer from it than men (3.4% compared to 0.5%). Although it’s even more difficult to diagnose in children, the prevalence of FM among children and teens is estimated to be between 1 and 6 percent. (Source)

How Is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?

There’s a series of comprehensive diagnostic criteria developed by various health organizations and available for physicians to use. The American College of Rheumatology, for instance, came up with the first of these criteria in 1990. It’s considered a big step in legitimizing the condition. The organization continues to propose updates to the original criteria in step with developments in research and diagnostic technologies. 


These criteria mainly use the Widespread Pain Index (WPI) and the Symptom Severity (SS) Scale, which includes two parts: one that measure the severity of fatigue, waking unrefreshed, and cognitive symptoms, and another that consists of a checklist of 41 symptoms (including many of the ones listed above).  


Despite the availability of these criteria, one recent study found that physicians failed to identify 49.6% of cases that met the diagnostic criteria for FM, and incorrectly identified 11.4% of cases as FM when patients did not meet the criteria. 

What Are the Current Treatments for Fibromyalgia?

There is currently no cure for fibromyalgia, and treatment plans are mainly aimed at managing and reducing symptoms. Here are the most common treatment options.

Medication

Classic pain relief medications such as NSAIDS (Ibuprofen, Aspirin, etc.) and opioids have been shown to be ineffective for treating FM. In fact, one recent study demonstrated that patients who take opioids experience more severe pain, higher functional impairment, and more severe depression. In spite of this, a large proportion of FM patients are prescribed opioid drugs (current research estimates the number is anywhere between 11 and 69 percent). This is especially worrisome given the opioid addiction crisis currently ravaging many parts of the US and Canada. 


The most commonly prescribed medication for FM is a type of antidepressant called Serotonin Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors. How exactly SNRIs work for FM is unknown, but some experts think the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine play an important role in pain perception and sensitivity. SNRIs prevent them from being removed from circulation in the brain.


A similar type of antidepressant called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) is also used, although less commonly, as they’re not as effective for pain as SNRIs. They’re more typically prescribed to help treat the emotional symptoms of FM.


A third type of antidepressant called tricyclic antidepressants or compounds may be prescribed as well, often in combination with the other two. They also inhibit the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine, but through a different mechanism. Side effects are more frequent and serious with this type of treatment.


Gabapentinoids are antiepileptic drugs that are also often used to treat nerve pain. Since some FM symptoms have similar characteristics to nerve pain, it can bring relief to some people. There are some unpleasant side effects, however, and the drug is habit-forming. 


Sedatives and sleep aids are often prescribed for FM, as poor sleep, besides being a symptom of FM itself, can be a major factor in the severity of symptoms.

Exercise

Experts recommend stretching exercises to help reduce stiffness and improve range of motion, strength training to help support joints and reduce fatigue, and low-impact aerobic exercise to improve breathing, heart rate and stamina, which can help improve quality of life. 

Stress management

As stress can be a major trigger for FM symptoms, it’s important for patients to learn to both minimize and cope with it. Massage, yoga and meditation are all recommended practices for FM sufferers.

Sleep hygiene training

Maintaining good sleep habits can help improve symptoms related to sleep. Better sleep can in turn improve other FM symptoms such as pain and tender points. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy

CBT is an effective form of therapy for treating a variety of issues, including anxiety and depression. As these conditions can function in a vicious cycle with FM, addressing the emotional symptoms of FM can help with physical symptoms as well. CBT can also be used to treat sleep disturbances. 

Can Red Light Therapy Reduce Fibromyalgia Symptoms?

There is mounting evidence that red light therapy may be a safe and effective treatment option for people suffering from fibromyalgia, and that it may be a useful tool for reducing many of the conditions’ key symptoms. It may seem far-fetched that a simple device that emits light can have such wide-ranging effects, but it becomes much more plausible when you start to understand how red light therapy works.

What Is Red Light Therapy?

Rather than exerting an external force on your body to treat various symptoms, conditions and ailments, red light therapy simply provides your cells with the right conditions for them to function more efficiently. In other words, it helps your body treat itself. How does it do that? Let’s rewind.


Red light therapy, or photobiomodulation, uses specific wavelengths of light, namely red and near-infrared (NIR) light, to penetrate the skin and target the mitochondria of the cells. Here they trigger a biochemical reaction that allows oxygen to be used more efficiently to produce adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. ATP is the vehicle that transports cellular energy to every part of the body from the largest organ to the smallest cell. 


At any given time, your body’s cells are carrying out an immeasurable number of tasks, which are crucial to your overall health, and which can be hindered by insufficient cellular energy. Think of it like a production line in a factory. When one worker falls behind, the whole system is thrown out of whack. These lapses in energy can manifest in a multitude of issues and ailments, ranging from skin conditions to inflammatory diseases, to chronic pain conditions (and many more).

How Does Red Light Therapy Work for Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia, being a collection of symptoms that are wide-ranging and have an unknown cause, is a great candidate for red light therapy treatment, and as such has been the focus of a growing number of studies on the topic. Here’s what the research has to say.

Red light therapy improves blood flow

As briefly mentioned above, FM appears to cause vasoconstriction, likely due to how it affects neural stimulation, leading to impaired blood flow. This may be the cause of some FM symptoms. 


Research has shown red light therapy to trigger the release of nitric oxide, which is a natural vasodilator. It also appears to induce angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels. Both these effects may work to counteract those of FM and help attenuate symptoms caused by impaired circulation. 

Red light therapy reduces inflammation

It appears that some symptoms associated with chronic fatigue syndrome (and by extension FM) may be caused by molecules in the brain that whip up microglial activity. Microglia are immune cells of the central nervous system (CNS), and in fact are a very specific type of macrophage. Macrophages are responsible for finding, engulfing and eliminating damaged cells and pathogens. Microglia, specifically, remove damaged neurons and synapses as well as infectious agents within the CNS. They also release cytokines that provoke an inflammatory response. In normal circumstances this is a good thing; inflammation is a key part of healing. An overactive inflammatory response, however, can be the cause of a plethora of chronic conditions. 


Macrophages generally polarize into two distinct phenotypes called M1 and M2. M1 is proinflammatory and essentially rallies the troops to the area that requires attention, while M2 is anti-inflammatory and is responsible for tissue repair. Research demonstrates that red light therapy may convert macrophage phenotypes from M1 to M2, providing an anti-inflammatory effect. While it’s not entirely clear whether microglia undergo the same M1-M2 polarization, there is some evidence to that effect. 

Red light therapy may reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety

While research is limited, red light therapy is gaining traction as a potential treatment option for people with major depressive disorder. One study showed a single exposure to transcranial NIR light led to reduced depression symptoms two weeks later in a small sample of 10 patients (symptoms increased again after 4 weeks, suggesting continued use is necessary to maintain effects). 


In another study, researchers administered 3 weeks of red light therapy treatment to 4 participants suffering from MDD, followed by 3 weeks of sham treatment. They found a significant reduction in overall depression scores post-treatment.


Another 2020 study exposed 11 participants to just over one minute of transcranial NIR light over 30 days, while another 11 people underwent a placebo treatment. Researchers found that red light therapy significantly increased brain activity and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Red light therapy improves sleep

Several recent studies have demonstrated the benefits of red light therapy on sleep. One such study conducted on a group of female basketball players showed an increase in sleep quality and serum melatonin levels after 14 days of treatment. 


In another study, researchers set out to study the effects of red light therapy vs botulinum toxin A on migraines. One of the byproducts they noted in the results was a reduction in sleep disturbance. 


A 2019 study evaluated the cognitive performance of 30 participants after following red light therapy exposure during 90-minute sleep periods or upon waking. Results showed that red light therapy was effective in reducing sleep inertia (grogginess). Participants not only reported a reduction in sleepiness, they performed better on a variety of tasks as well. This could have implications for FM sufferers: fatigue is not only a common cause of brain fog, it also often leads to a lapse in the self-care behaviors that are necessary for managing symptoms. 

Red light therapy for fibromyalgia: recent studies

There is quite a bit of evidence that red light therapy is effective for alleviating certain symptoms of FM. But what about studies looking at fibromyalgia as a whole? One team of researchers conducted a systematic review meta-analysis of all randomized controlled trials evaluating the effects of red light therapy on FM published before 2018. 


They found that treatment led to significant improvements in Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQ) scores, stiffness, pain severity, number of tender points, depression and anxiety, compared to placebo treatment.

Red Light Therapy Is a Safe and Affordable Alternative to Traditional Fibromyalgia Treatments

A major advantage of red light therapy, and one of the main reasons researchers are eager to continue to explore it as a treatment for a variety of issues, is its tolerability and lack of risk. Not only is the treatment  non-invasive and completely painless, it’s also a passive treatment, meaning all users have to do is find a comfortable position and let the light do its work. 


Red light therapy also has no serious side effects and there are no known short- or long-term risks. This is particularly advantageous to FM sufferers. Given that symptoms are not only numerous but all over the place in nature, patients often have to take a cocktail of medications to cover all the symptoms they’re exhibiting. Many of these drugs have significant and unpleasant side effects, and some are even habit-forming. Red light therapy has the potential to curb the reliance on some medications and improve patients’ quality of life. 


With red light therapy, patients also have the ability to treat many of the key symptoms of FM at the same time in short sessions. Improvements in symptoms due to red light therapy could lead to a reduced need for other time-consuming interventions, which may help FM sufferers regain some freedom in their lives. 


Finally, treatment for fibromyalgia can be exceedingly expensive, especially given the fact that there isn’t one established, one-size-fits-all course of treatment. This means that many patients rely on alternative treatments that aren’t covered by insurance. 


Red light therapy can fall into this category: in-clinic sessions aren’t cheap and often must be paid for out of pocket. For this reason, more and more people are turning to red light therapy at home to treat a host of issues, including those associated with fibromyalgia.

Can Red Light Therapy At Home Help Treat Fibromyalgia?

You might think that a personal red light therapy device wouldn’t be able to deliver the same results as treatments administered in a clinic or spa. The reality is that most professional equipment uses the same LED technology as you’d find in a home device, and spas and clinics are more often than not using the very same devices available for personal use. 


In fact, Rouge Red Light Therapy panels are designed for both personal and professional use. So with professional treatment, you’re not paying more for a more powerful device, you’re simply paying for the service. You can read more about professional vs in-home red light therapy treatment here).


While it does require a small, one-time investment, a personal red light therapy device can offer you a lifetime of relief from the many symptoms of fibromyalgia. And the benefits don’t stop there: red light therapy can treat a plethora of other issues, including:


Ready to alleviate your FM symptoms and improve your quality of life with red light therapy? Rouge devices not only come in a wide range of sizes and price points to suit your individual needs, they’re some of the most powerful LED devices on the market today (we’re not exaggerating, take a look here!). 


From diagnosis to treatment, the fibromyalgia journey can be long and arduous. But it looks like the light at the end of the tunnel may be, well, light. Talk to your doctor today to see if red light therapy is right for you and take the first step toward a pain-free life.

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