Red Light Therapy for Fibromyalgia: An End to Pain

woman laying down peacefully

Red light therapy is well-known as a beneficial remedy for chronic pain and inflammation. Every year, new studies confirm the effectiveness of this natural, gentle, non-invasive treatment. Here’s how red light therapy for fibromyalgia can put an end to your pain and give you back your life.

Also referred to as low-level light therapy (LLLT) and photobiomodulation, red light therapy is a revolutionary approach to alleviating chronic inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, nervous system problems, and oxidative stress—all of which are connected to fibromyalgia. But before we get into specifics, here’s a recap of how red light therapy works.

Red Light Therapy: The Basics

Red light therapy is a form of light therapy that originated thousands of years ago when humans recognized the healing powers of natural sunlight. 

Therapeutic Wavelengths

Today, we know that each wavelength of light contained within sunlight has specific effects on the human body. It is also known that the body responds in different ways to various wavelengths of light; green light, for example, is soothing, while blue light is energizing. 

Red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths are also part of natural sunlight, but with an important difference. Unlike full-spectrum sunlight, which contains harmful ultraviolet rays, red light has been shown in thousands of clinical studies to stimulate positive results. “The amount of hard scientific evidence is exponentially increasing,” says Michael A. Hamblin, an associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and the world’s foremost expert on red light therapy. 

The term “red light therapy” is often used to mean both red and NIR light. What differentiates them from each other is the size of their wavelengths, which are measured in nanometers (nm). Red light therapy wavelengths range from 630nm to 660nm, whereas NIR wavelengths range from 810nm to 850nm. 

Red light therapy devices use light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. When the light is shined onto bare skin, light photons absorb into the body’s tissues, where they stimulate various beneficial biological processes. Red light absorbs into the top layers of skin, which makes it an effective natural therapy for aging and other skin conditions. NIR light’s longer wavelengths allow deeper penetration into the underlying tissues beneath the skin, including muscles, connective tissue, bones, the organs, and even the brain.

How It Works

Red light therapy stimulates the production of energy within cells that are exposed to the light. When light photons soak into mitochondria (the “energy factories” within cells), this interaction stimulates the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary fuel that powers the body’s cells. 

Increased cellular energy is the catalyst for an incredible ripple effect of beneficial biological processes. 

Hundreds of studies and clinical trials have shown that red light therapy can help relieve innumerable conditions and disorders. In a 2013 study published in the scientific journal Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, the authors (one of whom was Dr. Hamblin) explain that LLLT “is a fast-growing technology used to treat a multitude of conditions that require stimulation of healing, relief of pain and inflammation, and restoration of function.”

It’s important to consider red light therapy as a long-term solution to improved health. 

Red Light Therapy Vs Typical Fibromyalgia Medications

    You may see some fast results, but as we explain in the next section, the therapy works at the cellular level. Rather than being a quick fix to manage symptoms (like a pain pill), red light therapy is a long-term approach. 

    What Is Fibromyalgia? 

    Fibromyalgia is a complex and incurable neurologic disorder that is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, extreme fatigue, sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression, and memory problems. Fibromyalgia amplifies pain signals but the pain comes and goes, and moves about the body.

    Along with guidance for self-care and physical activity, doctors often prescribe medications to control fibromyalgia symptoms. These medications, says the Arthritis Foundation, work to “turn down ‘pain volume.’ in the central nervous system (CNS).” The medications can also help reduce fatigue, improve mood, and promote sleep. 

    Although some people with fibromyalgia may benefit from medications, they may experience side effects. And even if the drugs did not carry side effects, they don’t address the underlying problems associated with the disorder. Simply managing symptoms could mean a lifelong dependence on medicines. 

    However, none of these current remedies get to the root of the problem.

    Does Red Light Therapy Help Fibromyalgia? Relief From Inside Out

    Couple hiking without pain

    Among the greatest benefits of red light therapy is that it does address some underlying causes or triggers of fibromyalgia, including chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, and psychological stress. For that reason, red light is considered a promising therapy for fibromyalgia sufferers (though it shouldn't be considered a cure). 

    A major scientific review that confirmed this was published in May 2019 by researchers from Taiwan, who analyzed nine published randomized controlled trials that collectively involved 325 fibromyalgia patients. Overall, about 95 percent of patients receiving LLLT demonstrated statistically significant improvement in their pain severity, fatigue, depression, and other factors, without any adverse side effects.

    In the published review, the authors write: “Our results provided the most up-to-date and relevant evidence regarding the effects of LLLT in fibromyalgia.” The authors go on to say that “LLLT is an effective, safe, and well-tolerated treatment” for the disorder.

    Increased Cellular Energy

    Red light therapy’s ability to stimulate energy production within cells is at the heart of what makes it helpful for fibromyalgia sufferers. Increased energy production in cells means they can perform their specialized functions, protect themselves from pathogens, repair themselves, and replicate normally. 

    When this process goes in the other direction, however—meaning cellular energy production decreases—it can lead to a condition called mitochondrial dysfunction. Research has shown that this condition is responsible for a huge variety of conditions including, as a 2011 study shows, neurodegenerative diseases.

    Red light has been shown to stimulate cellular metabolic functioning to reverse mitochondrial dysfunction. As Dr. Hamblin explains in a 2019 study published in Photonics: “Improved metabolic functioning is one of the most easily recognizable effects of [photobiomodulation], and increased intracellular ATP production is one the most strongly supported mechanisms of action.” This, in turn, stimulates the following beneficial processes. 

    Reduced Brain Inflammation 

    According to some researchers, fibromyalgia may be a central inflammatory disorder that may be caused by an abnormal cytokine release in the brain. Cytokines are small proteins released by immune system cells. 

    Research has shown that too many pro-inflammatory cytokines and not enough anti-inflammatory cytokines can cause inflammation of the central nervous system (a condition commonly found in fibromyalgia). NIR wavelengths can absorb into the brain to reduce chronic inflammation and regulate levels of both pro and anti-inflammatory cytokines. It also stimulates blood flow, which delivers nutrients and oxygen to brain cells and removes waste products and toxins.

    Reducing inflammation can prevent further damage to the central nervous system, as well as the peripheral nervous system, which refers to all the nerves that are outside the brain and spinal cord. This can support the restoration of normal pain signaling.

    Reduced Oxidative and Nitrosative Stress in the Brain 

    One prevailing theory about fibromyalgia is that it originates in neurochemical imbalances within the central nervous system. This was one main topic of a 2011 article titled, “The Science of Fibromyalgia,” which was published in the medical journal, Mayo Clinic Proceedings

    Fibromyalgia alters the balance of neurotransmitters that cause pain processing. For example, serotonin levels decrease, and levels of a neurochemical involved in pain signaling is known as “substance P” increase. These imbalances are associated with amplified pain signals, heightened sensitivity to even gentle stimuli, and an exaggerated response to painful stimuli. 

    Several studies confirm that red light helps correct these imbalances:

    A 2016 study found that red light reduces oxidative stress in the brain, which helps normalize serotonin levels to ease depression in fibromyalgia patients. 

    An animal study showed that red light reduces nitrosative stress by reducing the concentration of nitric oxide (an overabundance of nitric oxide is linked to low levels of serotonin, and therefore to depression, especially in patients with chronic pain.

    An overview of several clinical trials and animal studies shows improved cerebral blood flow to be another beneficial effect that red light therapy has on the brain.

    Normalized Microbiomes in the Gastrointestinal Tract

    As the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates reportedly once said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Research has shown that the majority of patients with fibromyalgia have chronic gastrointestinal problems, as doctor of chiropractic medicine Paul C. Breeding stated in a 2016 publication of the International Conference on Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain: “The majority of patients with fibromyalgia have dyspepsia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other gastrointestinal problems.”

    An animal study suggests that red/NIR light delivered to the abdomen can alter the gut microbiome in a beneficial way. It increases microbiome diversity, including a 10,000-fold increase in the proportion of beneficial bacteria after 14 days of treatment with NIR light. It is believed that this may be due to the anti-inflammatory effects of NIR light.

    Neuronal Regeneration and Neuroprotection

    Near-infrared light encourages neuronal regeneration in the brain as well as peripheral nerve repair, which can restore normal pain signaling. Red light therapy stimulates neurogenesis (growth of new neurons) and synaptogenesis (the brain’s ability to change). Red light also regulates neuronal function which can help restore normal CNS functioning.

    Red light also has a neuroprotective effect on brain cells, which safeguards their survival and supports normal functioning. Even red light applied to other parts of the body appears to have a neuroprotective effect on the brain, possibly due to stem cell activation.

    Increased Blood Circulation

    blood circulation

    Red light has also been shown to enhance the proliferation of endothelial cells, which form part of the tiny capillaries that deliver blood to the outermost regions of the body. More capillaries mean more oxygen and nutrient delivery to cells, and efficient waste removal. 

    Exercise, which also stimulates blood flow, can be excruciatingly painful for fibromyalgia patients. Improved blood flow from red light therapy treatment for fibromyalgia pain can be reduced, allowing patients to increase their daily activity levels.

    Stem Cell Activation

    Any time there is damage to cells anywhere in the body, stem cells are activated as part of the immune response. These “master cells” normally lie dormant in the bones (including the skull) where they are ready to mobilize as needed.

    In the case of fibromyalgia, stem cells help reduce musculoskeletal pain. Stem cells, or the body’s “master cells,” mobilize to the site of pain (which signals injury or disease); there, they take on necessary roles. These can include modulating the immune system by decreasing inflammatory cytokines and by enhancing the number of anti-inflammatory cytokines. This regulation results in less inflammation—and less pain.

    Red light has been shown to stimulate cellular migration of stem cells and to prevent abnormal cell apoptosis (cell death). One study showed that after 40-hour irradiation under 660nm LED lights, bone marrow stem cells migrated to the brain; in this case, toward brain cells damaged due to lack of oxygen and poor blood flow.

    Improved Sleep 

    Insomnia is one of the effects of fibromyalgia. Not only does the inability to sleep diminish one’s quality of life, but it also prevents the body from spending enough time in what’s known as a “rest and digest” state, in which the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body and works on internal healing. 

    One way that red light therapy helps improve sleep is by stimulating the production of melatonin, a hormone that lets the body know when it’s time to sleep and wake up. Better sleep supports positive moods and better help.

    Decreased Pain

    Red light therapy can decrease pain, as in the case of a fibromyalgia patient who saw her pain levels drop from 8/10 to 0/10 after four days of consecutive at-home red light therapy treatments. She reported increased activity, which continued to increase once her pain level dropped to 0/10. In a follow-up three weeks after the therapy, the patient remained pain-free.

    Red light reduces the hyper-excitability of pain receptors in fibromyalgia patients. It also stimulates a local release of nitric oxide, a vasodilator, which increases blood flow in the area.   

    Red light has been shown to reduce musculoskeletal pain by reducing inflammation and edema, promoting blood flow, and inducing analgesia. It has also been used clinically to treat neuropathic pain.

    Peripheral Nerve Regeneration

    Fibromyalgia pain is widespread throughout the body. Even though the disease is considered to be a disorder of the central nervous system, it directly affects the signaling that goes on between the CNS and the peripheral nervous system.

    Some research has shown that red light can successfully regenerate nerves. Along with the other benefits of red light, such as increased cellular energy, reduced inflammation, reduced oxidative damage, and increased circulation, nerve regeneration could potentially help restore normal signaling between the nerve endings and pain receptors in the brain.

    How to Use Red Light Therapy for Fibromyalgia

    Red light vs NIR light

    Thousands of studies have confirmed the efficacy of red and NIR light therapy on various chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. Here’s how you can use it for fibromyalgia yourself, in the comfort of your home.

    The key to applying red light to treat fibromyalgia is to use a high light energy output LED device that ensures optimal absorption of both red and NIR waves. Red light absorbs skin-deep which will help treat the peripheral nervous system; and NIR light penetrates the brain and deeper into the body’s tissues, to support the central nervous system.

    As previously mentioned, red light therapy works from inside-out, stimulating cellular metabolism. Using full-body red light therapy several times per week consistently over several weeks or months can bring lasting relief. 

    In the case of any autoimmune or inflammatory disorder, many people will continue with the therapy on a maintenance basis to avoid flare-ups. But you needn’t worry about expensive and inconvenient doctor visits for routine red light therapy; you can safely self-treat at home, as a complement to any medications or other treatments your doctor prescribes.

    For widespread conditions, you’ll want to use the largest panel or panels to ensure maximum absorption of light photons into your body’s tissues and brain. The initial investment is easily recouped over time, especially since red light treats a variety of conditions.

    The PlatinumLED BIO series gives you a choice of 660nm red light, 850nm NIR light, or a combination of both. The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series delivers a five-wavelength array of the most therapeutic wavelengths of red/NIR light together; this approach delivers red/NIR light simultaneously, ensuring the most comprehensive absorption and bio-stimulating effects on many layers of tissue. 

    Benefits of Red Light Therapy for Fibromyalgia : Boost Energy and Reduce Pain

    Red light therapy is a natural, non-invasive, safe, soothing, and best of all, proven effective therapy for fibromyalgia, as well as a vast number of other conditions and disorders. Very often, people who start using red light therapy for a particular purpose find that they benefit in other ways as well, from improved skin texture and reduced facial wrinkles to increased energy and better sleep. If you suffer from fibromyalgia or another condition that causes persistent pain, give red light a try. It could change your life … for the better.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Q. What happens if fibromyalgia is left untreated?

    Ans: Symptoms such as persistent pain, exhaustion, headaches, and depression can become progressively worse over time if fibromyalgia is left untreated. If you don't address your fibromyalgia, your anxiety and mood issues may increase.

    Q. Is Fibromyalgia a mental illness?

    Ans: Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disorder that generates tender areas on the body that are sensitive to touch. Although fibromyalgia is not considered a mental condition, many persons who have it also suffer from sadness and/or anxiety.