New treatment for pain uses light to bring veterans out of the dark

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Looking to the light to bring veterans out of the dark. For many returning service men and women, pain is a constant companion – and with it come anxiety and depression. Instead of medications with heavy side effects … researchers hope a lighter approach will help vets find relief.

The loads are heavy from the top down – sturdy Kevlar helmets and 100-pound packs weigh down soldiers – and often leave them in pain long after they’ve served.

Jacquwlyn Jackson, US Veteran: “It had gotten to the point after I did come back from being in Kuwait that it felt like every single day someone had a hot poker just jabbing in my neck. It was no relief so I kind of learned to, I guess, live with it.”

Jacquwlyn Jackson – a former aircraft mechanic and field medic – isn’t alone. About half of all returning veterans suffer with chronic pain.

John Burns, PhD, clinical psychologist, Rush University Medical Center: “There’s a tight connection between depression and chronic pain, and there always has been. So if you elevate the amount of depression in people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq then you are going to magnify the amount of chronic pain.”

Jacquwlyn Jackson: “When I would go to sleep I would be hurting. When I woke up I was hurting. And they tried physical therapy. They tried medications that just kind of put me to sleep, but it did nothing for the pain so I did go through slight depressions, being irritable.”

It’s a cycle John Burns, a clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center, and his team hope to stop in veterans at risk for a lifetime of disabling symptoms – not with a drug, but with the power of sleep. They’re using light therapy to target the body’s circadian rhythm – the system that controls the release of melatonin – a key factor in a good night’s rest.

John Burns: “If you get bright light in the morning you advance the circadian rhythms so people will be having early release of melatonin which then aids in sleep. With the release of melatonin at the correct time and at an earlier time, they are going to become naturally sleepy. People can fight your natural biological rhythms, that’s called binge watching a TV show until three in the morning even though you know you shouldn’t. So you can fight these things, but if you don’t and you give in to the natural sleepiness that occurs with melatonin release you’re going to have a better night’s sleep, your mood’s going to be improved and hopefully pain will be relieved as well.”

In the study, Jacquwlyn sat in front of a broad-spectrum, ultraviolet-ray free light box an hour a day for two weeks.

Jacquwlyn Jackson: “After a couple of times of doing the light therapy I was actually not taking a nap during the day. When it came around that time I got into a routine of preparing for bed and going to sleep and then actually sleeping through the night. I could tell a difference during the day, too, as far as my mood. When I got up I did feel like I had actually rested and I wasn’t as irritable. I would say since then I’ve been 90 percent pain free, so that is excellent for me.”

The VET bright light study at Rush is a federally funded trial – and researchers are looking for more participants with chronic back pain. You can learn more at https://www.rush.edu/news/veterans-see-light. You can also call study coordinator Catherine Keefner at (312) 942-1529.