Light therapy for veterans dealing with pain and sleep issues

Published: Apr. 29, 2016 at 11:54 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 29, 2016 at 12:33 PM EDT
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CHICAGO (Ivanhoe Newswire/WTVM) -- Nearly half of all returning veterans say they suffer from chronic pain and are four times more likely to develop sleep disorders. But instead of treating them with medications with heavy side effects, researchers are shedding some light on the matter with a different approach.

Sleepless nights have been a way of life for Lisa Smith for nearly three decades.

"I could sleep for a good 15 minutes, go into a good, deep 15 minute sleep and all the sudden, I'd be wide awake," says Smith.

She is convinced her tossing and turning started when her tour of duty ended, but her body's military time clock didn't.

"I'm still getting up early in the morning, 4:30, 5 o'clock, getting ready as if I am going to stand in 6 o'clock formation," she explains.

She also began developing back pain. Now, a new study is shedding light on why.

John Burns, PhD, Professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says, "We live on a planet that has a 24 hour day. Because of that, plants, animals, fish, lizards, everybody has some sort of circadian rhythm tied to that 24-hour clock."

Your body clock, officially known as your circadian rhythm, helps control the release of melatonin, essential for a good night's rest. Burns says when your body is out of sync, "What accompanies that is sleep disorder, sleep problems and mood problems. And we also think increases in pain sensitivity."

Now, researchers at Rush University are testing a drug free alternative to treatment, light therapy.

After they wake up, participants like Lisa sit in front of a UV-free light box for an hour to help reset their body's clock.

Smith says, "It just feels like a bright day." And it works.

She says, "It reminds me kind of like when I was a kid. In the summertime, I would play outside under the sun for so long and then at nighttime I was just worn out, just time to go to bed."

For the first time in years, she's sleeping soundly and waking up without pain.

Participants sit in front of the light box for two weeks. Researchers are studying how long the effects last. The vet bright light study at Rush University is still recruiting. It's one of 13 federally funded studies exploring non-drug approaches to managing chronic pain and other health conditions in veterans.

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