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Light Therapy for Sleep Disorders

Overview

If you have trouble sleeping at night, you’re not alone. Based on 2008 figures, the National Institutes of Health¬†estimated that at least 40 million Americans feel the effect of long-term, chronic sleep disorders every year. These sleep disorders include sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome. Sleep disorder treatments include two types of light therapy.

Function

Circadian rhythms, which serve as your body’s inner clock for sleep functions, tell your body when it’s time to sleep and rise for the day. Sometimes, stress, environmental factors, or constantly varying work schedules can disturb your body clock. When this occurs, you can experience a temporary or chronic sleep disturbance. Natural sunlight, along with other forms of light therapy, can help to reset your body’s natural circadian rhythms, and therefore your sleep schedule.

Types

Two types of light therapy have been used for treatment of sleep disorders. Light boxes are the most well-known type of light therapy, and you may have seen one in use. Designed to simulate sunlight’s wavelengths, a light box’s lights are directed toward your body for a prescribed amount of time each day.

Colored light therapy is also used to treat sleep disorders. Your physician will normally perform this treatment, which involves direction of blue, red and violet lights directly upon your body.

Key Elements

Your physician will direct your light therapy treatment, and will likely recommend that you begin with a brief period of exposure. Treatment times can be gradually extended to meet your specific needs.

Next, your doctor will specify the time of day at which you perform your light therapy. Although early morning therapy may work for some people, it’s best to listen to your doctor’s recommendations.

Finally, the intensity of the light source will help to determine your treatment length. Stronger intensity light sources generally result in shorter treatment times.

Side Effects

Although you’re unlikely to encounter unpleasant side effects from light therapy, some people experience unwelcome sensations: headache or eye strain, nausea and vomiting, and irritability or agitation. Side effects may go away on their own after a few days. If not, try increasing your distance from the light source, taking breaks during treatment, or shortening exposure time. If you have light-sensitive skin or eyes, or take medication that increases your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, talk to your doctor before beginning light therapy.

Cost

Before you purchase a light box, talk to your physician about the best box for your needs.   Ask your physician, and your insurance company, if a medically approved light box may be approved for insurance coverage.

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