Red Light Therapy for Headaches and Migraines: Relief for Relentless Pain

Headaches are a common affliction, with half to two thirds of the world’s population having suffered from at least one in the last year. It’s also estimated that 1.7–4% of the world’s population suffers from headaches on 15 or more days each month. This can have severe consequences, both for the individual and on a societal level. In fact, according to the Global Burden of Disease study 2019, headache disorders were the third highest cause of years lost due to disability (the number of years with a lower quality of life due to disease) in 2019. Migraines accounted for 88.2% of these headache disorders.  

Headache disorder sufferers often have difficulty managing their pain. Many rely on medication, which can come with a laundry list of side effects that may themselves contribute to a lower quality of life.

There is some good news, however. A growing body of research indicates that red light therapy may be a safe and effective alternative to medication in the treatment of headache and migraines. This article will take a quick look at what researchers have found so far—but first, what do we mean by headache and headache disorders?

Types of Headache Disorders

Some examples of headache disorders include:

  • Migraine: Usually recurring and often lifelong, they can be moderate to severe and can last several days. Pain often occurs only on one side, and is often accompanied by nausea. 
  • Cluster headaches: These short but painful attacks typically occur around one eye several times a day, and can cause the affected eye to water and sometimes droop. The nose can also run or be blocked on the affected side. 
  • Tension-type headaches: The most common headache disorder, it’s usually caused by stress or musculoskeletal strain in the neck or back. It’s characterized as tightness or pressure in the head. Chronic tension headaches are a significant cause of disability, as there is often no respite.
  • Medication-overuse headache: This disorder is caused by overuse of acute medication. Symptoms usually stop when the medication is stopped, although this may cause withdrawal symptoms or the return of symptoms being treated by the medication in question. 

How Can Red Light Therapy Treat Headaches?

Red light therapy is increasingly being recognized as a safe and effective treatment for a variety of conditions, as well as a natural way to boost cell functioning and, in turn, overall health and wellbeing. That sounds like a tall order, we know, but there’s an abundance of science to back it up—and the body of literature is growing by the day. You can read more about the basics of red light therapy here and here. And if you’d like more information on how it can treat all sorts of pain, check out this blog post

Let’s get straight to it: what kind of research has been done on red light therapy for headaches, and what were the findings? To the archives!

  • In 2011, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of red light therapy on 23 patients with chronic rhinosinusitis (a condition that causes facial pain and pressure similar to headache). Both treatments were found to significantly decrease symptoms, and effects were sustained for a minimum of 2 months. 
  • A similar study was conducted in 2013. Here, 10 patients received treatment 3 times a week for a total of 10 sessions. Symptoms improved by 39% after 2 weeks and 46% after 4 weeks. Effects were sustained for an average of 5 months.
  • A 2018 study looked at the effects of red light therapy compared to botulinum toxin A (BT-A) on chronic migraines. Researchers specifically set out to measure pain days, pain intensity, intake of drugs or self-medication, anxiety, and sleep disturbance. They found both treatments to be effective in reducing pain days and pain intensity as well as intake of acute medication. While BT-A was found to reduce anxiety, red light therapy reduced sleep disturbance.
  • A 2019 study also evaluated the effectiveness of red light therapy on chronic migraines, this time following 3 patients. Each patient evaluated their pain at 8 out of 10. The first patient, a 42-year-old male suffering from migraines twice a week for 10 years, received 3 treatments over 4 weeks. He had no migraines for 2 weeks following his treatment protocol. The second patient was a 53-year-old female suffering from migraines 2–3 times a week for 30 years. Her treatment protocol consisted of 10 treatments spread out over 7 weeks. She had zero migraines during the course of her treatment and for the 90 days following. The last patient was a 72-year-old female suffering from migraines 3–5 times a week for 59 years. She received treatment twice a week for 4 weeks and then once a week for 4 weeks. The patient had zero migraines during her treatment protocol. 
  • Finally, in a 2016 study, 10 women suffering from chronic headaches associated with temporomandibular disorders were administered a single red light therapy treatment. A near-infrared laser (830nm) was applied to masseter and mandibular muscle tender points for 34 seconds. Researchers measured blood flow velocity as well as serotonin and cholinesterase levels before treatment, immediately after, and 3 days post-treatment. They found a significant decrease in blood flow velocity and a significant increase in serotonin levels 3 days after treatment. They also noted a 64% reduction in pain after treatment. They concluded that red light therapy may help modulate blood flow and serotonin levels in women with tension-type headaches.

While researchers are just scratching the surface in terms of understanding the underlying mechanisms that enable red light therapy to effectively treat headaches and migraines, it’s becoming increasingly clear the there is indeed a positive effect—one that stands to change the lives of those who’ve been suffering for months, years, even lifetimes (imagine relief from 59 years of chronic migraines!)

As the body of research continues to grow, the overwhelming consensus amongst those studying red light therapy is that it’s completely safe to use and has no major risks or side effects. So, if you’re looking for a new, safe avenue for treating persistent pain, red light therapy might be a viable—and effective—option. Did you know that Rouge red light therapy devices are among the most powerful, durable, and affordable on the market today? We have a whole family of high-quality, multipurpose panels and devices to meet your specific needs, from your head to your toes and back again. Talk to your doctor about red light therapy today!

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