Patients in pain can be desperate to find ways to make that pain stop.
Many depend on very strong opioid painkillers that can leave them addicted.
Now University of Arizona researchers think they may have found a simple, powerful way to reduce pain with the right kind of light.
For some people just being surrounded by greenery can be very relaxing but what if concentrated green light could do more than lighten your mood, it could relieve your pain?
"Being a prisoner of pain or of pain medication is really a rotten way to live,” says Gwen Yaple.
She had so much pain from fibromyalgia she went to the University of Arizona's pain clinic at Banner University Medical Center.
There pain clinic director Doctor Mohab Ibrahim and UA Pharmacology professor Raj Khanna asked if she'd like to help test an intriguing new idea to relieve her pain.
"He said, "Would you be interested and I said, 'oh boy, yes!”
Doctor Ibrahim's brother told him just sitting around green trees would relieve his headaches. One day the doctor got a headache. He spent a few minutes under some trees and the pain reduced.
"And I thought maybe it's just being in a quiet place meditating that made my headache better. But then I thought, I do sit in a lot of quiet areas and that really doesn't necessarily improve my headache."
He thought chemicals from the trees could be easing the pain, but decided green light filtering through the leaves might be what made the difference.
Scientists know light can affect your body chemistry and alter your mood and your energy. Raj Khanna says green light may make your body produce more natural pain killers.
Raj Khanna says,”Green light seems to be increasing the level of your endogenous opioids; not the opioids we all hear about that people are taking, the epidemic and the abuse but your level of neurochemical endogenously change, and that's really what we think is how green light is bringing about the pain relief."
Before the researchers asked patients like Gwen Yaple to spend a few hours a day under low powered, green lights they put rats under green lights or even fitted rats with tiny green contact lenses. UA has strict rules to make sure the rats are treated humanely. Under those rules, the researchers used warm light under the rats’ feet to make the rats just a little uncomfortable. Under green light, they tolerated that discomfort much longer.
Gwen Yaple laughs and says,: "I'm thrilled to know that rats react positively to it. So I'm as good as a rat. What can I say?"
Patients who tried red or blue light did not get pain relief. Gwen Yaple and other patients who tried the green lights got such good results they didn't want to give the lights back.
She says, “Nothing goes away so I can say, yippee, I have no pain, but it reduces it, greatly, noticeably."
The researchers think the green light has the potential to help patients reduce their pain meds and say the effect seems to last a while after patients turn off the lights. They do warn against patients experimenting with alternative treatments unless a doctor approves.
Because green light therapy does not involve drugs, they might be able to complete testing and make it available as a treatment in just a couple of years, maybe in a convenient form like sunglasses in just the right shade of green.