Macular degeneration is a progressive eye disease. Red light therapy might help slow the decline.

Red light therapy is gaining popularity for a variety of uses, including cosmetic skin care and wound healing. New research indicates that it may be useful in treating macular degeneration, too. But more studies are needed to measure the full effect and safety of red light as an eye therapy.

This article will explain red light therapy and how it’s used for macular degeneration, and other information you might want to talk with a doctor and healthcare team about.

Red light therapy is a treatment that’s traditionally been used for cosmetic conditions. The therapy uses low-level wavelengths of nearly visible infrared light to improve the function and health of your individual cells. Red light therapy works by strengthening the mitochondria, or the part of each cell that provides power and energy.

After red light therapy, cells have been found to create more energy molecules that help your body repair tissues and fight inflammation.

Aside from macular degeneration in your eyes, studies show red light therapy can be used to treat many other health issues including hair loss, cold sores, carpal tunnel syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis.

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Macular degeneration is a progressive eye disease that usually develops with age. Overall, age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in people over age 50.

The most common symptom in people with macular degeneration is blurring or lost vision in the center of their visual field, the area required for reading and precise visual tasks. Typically, peripheral vision remains intact.

Aside from age (usually over 50), some risk factors for developing macular degeneration include:

  • a history of high blood pressure
  • a family history of macular degeneration
  • obesity
  • smoking
  • a diet high in saturated fats

Macular degeneration can’t be cured, and there are very few treatments available. Medications have been developed to treat the wet form of macular degeneration, but there’s currently no way to treat dry macular degeneration.

That’s why red light therapy is a growing trend for treating this eye condition.

Red light theory, also known as photobiomodulation (PBM), is being increasingly recognized for its effects on the central nervous system and the retina.

The way red light therapy works on your retina is the same as the way it works for other cells and tissues. The low-level light protects and supports your retina by:

  • lowering light-related eye stress
  • promoting contrast sensitivity
  • lowering cell death
  • lowering inflammation
  • improving visual acuity

Red light therapy is still in its infancy as a treatment for macular degeneration, but a number of studies over the last several years have described improvements in visual health.

Red light therapy is still seen as an alternative or complementary treatment for eye conditions, but research into using it as a treatment for retina disorders is promising.

A 2020 study that tested brief daily treatment with a 670 nanometer red light tool for a period of 2 weeks in people over age 40 found that treatment improved color and contrast vision by 20% on average and up to 47% in younger people.

Another research paper from 2020 focused on whether letter recognition improved after therapy as a way to measure visual improvement. The study team reported that 50% of people in the study gained between 5 and 8 lines’ improvement on the standardized visual activity chart, compared with less than 14% in the control groups.

The improvements lasted approximately 6 months, and the red light therapy was then repeated with similar encouraging results.

Based on those findings, in future clinical practice, people with macular degeneration may need to receive periodic re-treatments.

Perhaps the most significant element uncovered in recent studies is that red light therapy appears to produce significant improvements for people in the early stages of dry age-related macular degeneration — the type that has traditionally been virtually untreatable.

There were also some benefits seen in people with wet age-related macular degeneration, but several studies indicate more improvement in the dry versions of the condition.

There are many different kinds of lasers, and not all laser eye treatments use the same type of light.

Laser surgery to correct refractive errors such as nearsightedness and astigmatism administers a much higher intensity of invisible light energy than what’s used in red light therapy.

Most laser therapies used in vision treatments use short bursts of cool ultraviolet light with a much shorter wavelength of around 193 nanometers compared with the 670 nanometer wavelength used in red light therapies.

More research is needed to determine if red light therapy causes any damage to eyes.

Early studies seem to point to no, but more clinical trials need to be done. Other studies have found that stronger, more visible blue and ultraviolet light therapies don’t have a negative impact on eye health or cause any serious side effects.

Laser therapy for macular degeneration isn’t officially an approved therapy yet, so pricing information can be difficult to find.

We can look at the cost of other uses — for example, infrared therapy for skin rejuvenation costs roughly $1,400 to $2,500 per treatment.

Red light therapy is a promising option for macular degeneration treatment, especially for dry age-related macular degeneration that is traditionally difficult to treat. More research is needed to understand the full scope of the risks and benefits of this treatment, and it’s not a currently recommended therapy for macular degeneration.