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Red Light Therapy For Eyes: Improve Eye Health, Function & Appearance?

Last Reviewed on May 1, 2024

Discover how red light therapy can combat vision loss, offering crucial benefits like reducing inflammation, enhancing cell repair, and stimulating good eye health.

Did you know that by 2050, nearly 9 million Americans aged 40 and older will suffer from uncorrectable vision loss?

What makes this even more frightening is that these numbers are increasing due to diabetes and other chronic diseases plaguing the US population [1].

Luckily, studies show that red light therapy has a positive impact on eye health, and it’s completely safe to use with minimal to no side effects.

Red light therapy stimulates our mitochondria – the tiny powerhouses of our cells – and is known to reduce degenerative eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic retinopathy. Not to mention, it improves visual acuity, promotes wound healing, and reduces inflammation too!

In this article, we’ll look at how red light therapy works and the benefits it has to offer.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work In The Eyes?

Red light therapy – also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation therapy (PBM) – uses low wavelengths of red or near-infrared light to stimulate retinal cells. Typically, LEDs are used to emit this R/NIR light (between 600 nm and 1,000 nm).

It protects the eyes against photoreceptor cell death and retinal inflammation [2]. In other words, red light therapy can help us slow down (and maybe even prevent!) the development of eye diseases that lead to blindness.

It’s different from conventional laser therapy, as it doesn’t use photon energy that often leaves patients feeling “burnt”.

Woman with red light therapy panel

The Science

Every cell in your body has mitochondria. Studies from the ’90s suggest that red light therapy works by penetrating the mitochondria in the retina, specifically targeting the cytochrome C oxidase enzyme. In turn, this leads to increased adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production [3].

In simpler terms, red light therapy increases cellular energy production, which improves mitochondrial function. This boost in cellular function is vital for the health of eye tissue.

Studies have shown that improved mitochondrial function significantly reduced age-related retinal inflammation and diabetic retinopathy (i.e. diabetes-induced inflammation of the retinal vessels). It also downregulated the expression of genes in fibroblast cells that are responsible for cell death and the stress response [4, 5, 6].

During the red light process, nitric oxide is released as a byproduct – a molecule that is also produced by cytochrome C oxidase [7]. Nitric oxide is a powerful vasodilator that improves blood flow to the optic nerve and delivers oxygen and nutrients to eye tissues.

Red light treatment has also been known to protect Müller cells in the retina, which are vital for photoreceptor protection. It reduces stress responses and inflammatory cytokine production in these cells [8].

Red Light Therapy Benefits: Eye Health

Here are some of the benefits of using red light therapy for eye health.

Eyesight

Red light therapy supports eye health by generating cell repair, reducing inflammation, and promoting healthy circulation. Low-level laser therapy maintains good eye health by slowing age-related macular degeneration and supporting healing after eye surgery.

In a study, red light therapy (670 nm) was used to test if it could improve color contrast sensitivity in people aged 37 to 70. Shining red light into their eyes for 3 minutes in the morning resulted in significant visual improvements, with older subjects reporting 20+% improvements. Individuals were better able to identify color contrasts from about one week after their treatment [9].

The time of day when light therapy is used is also important. Researchers found “only the morning light dose effective” [9]. One thought here is that our body’s cells, including retinal cells, may function differently throughout the day. Mitochondria in retinal cells, for instance, may be more active and responsive to treatment during the morning hours.

Contrast sensitivity is the ability to tell the difference between similar shades of color, which is useful for identifying unmarked curbs and steps.

Eye Conditions

Eye Floaters

Floaters are tiny specks that drift in and out of our field of vision. These usually happen when tiny stands of your vitreous humor – the jelly-like substance found between the lens and retina – “clump” together and cast shadows on your retina. While more clinical studies need to be done, there have been anecdotal experiences of people reporting red light therapy to help reduce floaters.

Diagram comparing normal vision to vision with floaters

Dry Eye

Dry eye occurs when our eyes don’t produce enough tears to keep our eyes moisturized. The most common cause of dry eye syndrome is meibomian gland dysfunction (MGM). The tiny glands (meibomian glands) in the eyelids produce less oil and/or poor-quality oil that fails to lubricate the eyes. This oil is important because it keeps our tears from evaporating too fast.

Studies show that people suffering from dry eye disease can benefit from just 3 minutes of red light therapy per eye twice a week. The duration of treatment varies depending on the severity of the condition [10].

Styes

Speaking from personal experience, these painful, inflamed bumps on the eyelid are not fun! Red light therapy is known to reduce inflammation and speed up the healing process which is a relief when it comes to pesky styes.

Corneal Injury

Red light therapy is beneficial in treating corneal injuries due to its ability to promote healing, reduce inflammation, and stimulate regeneration of damaged cells.

Two different light therapy techniques were used in a 2016 study: extremely low-frequency pulsed electromagnetic field (ELF-PEMF) and low-level laser technology (LLLT). Researchers found that the therapeutic effects of red light had the best results, with reduced inflammation and fewer keratocytes (lost eye cells) [11].

Close-up of an eye with informational text on corneal injury treatment

Optic Nerve Injury

Red light therapy can help with optic nerve injuries by boosting optic nerve cells. The optic nerve is responsible for sending visual stimulations to our brains so we know what we’re looking at.

However, parts of these nerves can get damaged (known as partial transection), which can lead to oxidative stress or secondary degeneration. This means free radical molecules – the “bad” cells – increase in number and attack healthy eye cells.

A 2010 study proved that red light therapy can heal and repair optic nerve damage, preventing oxidative stress and retinal ganglion cell death [12].

Eye Diseases

Glaucoma Neuroprotection

Glaucoma is an umbrella term for a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve. It’s caused by increased internal (intraocular) pressure of the eye, which if left untreated can result in vision loss or blindness. It’s the leading cause of blindness in individuals over the age of 60 [13].

Glaucoma neuroprotection refers to strategies that are used to protect the structure and function of the optic nerve and retinal ganglion cells (RGCs).

Studies into the therapeutic effects of red light therapy have shown enhanced mitochondrial function and preserved RGCs. This form of non-invasive red light exposure offers a hopeful treatment in supporting retina cells and overall eye health [14].

Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)

Red light therapy is thought to improve blood flow and reduce inflammation in retinal cells. A 2008 study involving 203 patients with beginning (“dry”) and advanced (“wet”) forms of AMD showed an improvement across their visual spectrum when 780 nm red light therapy was used. Patients with wet AMD also reported reduced edema and bleeding. Interestingly, even those with cataracts reported significant improvements, albeit slightly less than those without (95% vs. 97%) [15].

Diagram showing normal vision and Age Macular Degeneration (AMD) stages

Diabetic Retinopathy

Red light therapy was used in a case study involving patients with type 2 diabetes and non-center-involving diabetic macular edema (NCDME). The results showed a 20% decrease, on average, in macular thickness, as it reduced retinal inflammation [16].

Lazy Eye (Amblyopia)

In 2012, clinical trials involving 178 individuals with amblyopia were conducted using 780 nm light. The light was aimed 1 cm above the eyeball in 30-second increments, for a total of 3-4 sessions over a 2-week period. The results showed improved vision for 90% of patients, with the improvements lasting for at least 6 months [17].

Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP)

While there is no cure for RP, the use of red light therapy has shown notable improvements in the condition. This rare genetic condition affects 1 in 4,000 individuals. RP is the breakdown and loss of posterior retinal cells and is directly responsible for vision loss [18].

Studies on a 55-year-old patient with RP showed signs of improved vision (including peripheral vision), indicating that red light therapy had a positive effect after just 4 sessions. What was most surprising was that the improvements lasted 5 years. After which, repeating treatment restored his original vision gains [19].

Cosmetic Applications

Deep red light not only slows down aging retinal function, macular degeneration, and progressive eye disease but has cosmetic benefits too.

The increased energy production of mitochondria promotes cell growth and the rejuvenation of many cells within the body; including skin and hair.

Speaking from experience, red LED light has helped reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles around my eyes and improved the overall texture of my skin, among many other benefits.

Before-and-after close-up of aged skin around eyes

Anti-Aging Benefits

As we now know, red light therapy boosts ATP and mitochondria energy production. The improved blood flow and circulation have been proven successful in a variety of cosmetic applications, such as:

  • Red light therapy can reverse skin aging as it boosts the production of collagen and elastin – the fundamental elements in skin elasticity and firmness. Increased collagen reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles around the eyes and treats those nasty dark rings underneath your eyes [20].
  • Red and near-infrared light therapy reduces cell degeneration in skin cells, improving skin quality and texture. Further research into this treatment extends to the improvement of acne scars, psoriasis, and stretch marks. Red wavelengths have shown improvements in sun-damaged skin, particularly in the face and eye region.
  • The increased cell growth caused by red light therapy has shown substantial improvements in wound healing as it regenerates and repairs old, dead cells around the eyes. [21].
  • Red light therapy improves hair growth and has been used by those suffering from frontal fibrosing alopecia (FFA) or eyebrow loss. Patients reported significant increases in total eyebrow hair count, with red light reducing inflammation and stimulating new strand growth [22].

How To Use Red Light Therapy For Eyes

For eye-related treatments, opt for red light therapy devices designed for facial use, such as face masks, eye masks, or handheld panels. Make sure the affected area is evenly exposed to the red light and keep the device a couple of inches away from your eyes.

Red light therapy treatments are safe for daily use and range in duration from 5-20 minutes (for cosmetic concerns) and from 30-180 seconds (for eye health concerns). Be mindful that while red light therapy is considered safe for the eyes, direct or prolonged exposure can be harmful.

Lastly, consistency is key. Being consistent with this non-invasive treatment plan will yield the best results.

Woman using LED light therapy eye mask

FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about red light therapy and eye health.

Is Red Light Therapy Bad For Your Eyes?

No. Scientific evidence has shown that red light therapy has many benefits for eye health. It slows down age-related macular degeneration, improves vision, aids in wound healing, reduces inflammation, and generates cell growth and repair in retinal cells.

How Often Should You Do Red Light Therapy For Your Eyes?

It’s recommended to start with a few sessions per week and gradually increase the frequency. For most, three 3-minute sessions per week are enough to achieve the best results and delay the onset of progressive eye disease.

Do I Need To Wear Googles?

If you are targeting other areas of your face (i.e. not the eyes) then wearing some sort of eye protection is recommended. While red light treatment is safe for the eyes, prolonged exposure can be harmful and is best avoided.

Final Thoughts

Red light therapy is safe to use and has proven to be beneficial in many eye-related studies, especially for those with aging eyes and declining vision. Findings show an improvement in mitochondria production and the stimulation of new cell growth.

The benefits of red light therapy are fantastic. From delaying the onset of age-related macular degeneration and retinal inflammation to improved vision, you can’t go wrong with this treatment, especially if you’re seeking a non-invasive option.

Want to know more? Take a look at Therapeutic Beams’s research into the many benefits of red light therapy.

References

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/visionhealth/basics/ced/fastfacts.htm
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21421867/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4768515/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22595370/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3668802/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12713592/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21356170/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23469078/
  9. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-02311-1
  10. https://iovs.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2639892
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26795389/
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20822460/
  13. https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/glaucoma
  14. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/11/13/5872
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18588438/
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4106479/
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22235969/
  18. https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/retinitis-pigmentosa
  19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24527959/
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3926176/
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4148276/
  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8434678/
Anne, Founder of Therapeutic Beams

Anne Linde

Since using it to clear up her acne in college, Anne has been an avid user and fan of all things light therapy. She now primarily uses red light therapy for its anti-aging benefits. Anne's mission is to make the science behind red light therapy easy to understand and accessible, so anyone can use it to take control of their health and wellbeing.

John Ni, BSc.

John, a graduate of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, serves as a respected scientific reviewer at TherapeuticBeams.com. His expertise extends across various domains, including chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and dermatology. He contributes to publications like Royal Society of Chemistry, Drug Topics, and Practical Dermatology.

John Ni, Content Editor & Scientific Review

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