Medical Moment: Veterans beating chronic pain and insomnia with light

Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 5:34 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - Nearly half of all returning veterans deal with chronic pain, and they are four times more likely to develop sleep problems. Now, researchers are looking at light to help treat both of these issues.

Army veteran Lisa Smith has lived with sleep problems and chronic pain for decades.

“I was not able to sleep, no. It’s lower back; my lower back bothered me a whole lot,” Smith recalled.

So, she took part in a study to see if bright light therapy could help both her insomnia and her pain. Researchers from Rush University Medical Center are studying whether sitting in front of a bright light box for an hour first thing in the morning could improve symptoms for veterans like Lisa. The theory is that light advances your day cycle, so your body releases melatonin earlier. That could lead to improved sleep and as a result: less pain.

“If you haven’t slept in a while, you’re more sensitive to pain,” said John Burns, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center.

The bright light worked for Lisa!

“You know, I don’t remember having back pain after that. In three or four days I started really realizing that I’m going to have to set my alarm now to get up because I’m not awake,” Smith explained.

A different published study recently found people with PTSD reported better sleep and fewer symptoms after exposure to blue light therapy.

A simple solution that could solve some big problems for veterans. Dr. Burns says the bright light boxes are already commercially available and are relatively inexpensive. The study on light boxes is federally funded.