Common Side Effects from Light Box Therapy and Ways to Alleviate Them

Headaches, Mood Changes May Result from Phototherapy

Light can have profound effects on our ability to sleep. It may impact the ease in which we fall asleep and wake in the morning. It can also impact our mood. For example, in the dead of winter, it can become difficult to wake up and get the day started due to morning sleepiness. With chronic circadian disorders, such as in those who are night owls by nature, insomnia may also occur at night. If you have been advised to use a light box to treat your circadian rhythm disorder or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), you may wonder if there are any potential common side effects with light box therapy and ways to alleviate them. Fortunately, there are very few side effects with this type of phototherapy and if they do occur, they are reversible once therapy is stopped.

Some of the potential side effects that may occur include:

Photophobia

Light box therapy may cause photophobia, literally a fear of light
Light box therapy may cause photophobia, literally a fear of light. Chris McGrath / Staff / Getty Images

The light box itself may prove bothersome, inciting a case of photophobia (literally, "fear of light"). If you have this symptom, you may experience a light sensitivity that may even cause eye pain. You may find that the light is irritating and something you simply feel compelled to avoid.

Headache

Light box therapy may cause a headache as a side effect
Light box therapy may cause a headache as a side effect. Tetra Images/Getty Images

A headache may result from use of a light box, especially if you are prone to migraine headaches. The bright light may intensify the discomfort.

Fatigue

Light box exposure at the wrong time may cause increased fatigue
Light box exposure at the wrong time may cause increased fatigue. Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

Curiously, the light box may actually incite a case of fatigue. This may occur if your circadian rhythm becomes shifted inappropriately by using the light in the evening when you are a night owl, for example. Your body may suddenly be compelled to sleep later into the morning and as a result you will naturally feel fatigued at that time. More »

Irritability

Irritability or mood problems may occur in some as a side effect to light box therapy
Irritability or mood problems may occur in some as a side effect to light box therapy. Hero Images/Getty Images

In some people, the use of a light box may result in increased irritability. You may find yourself losing your patience with others, becoming annoyed, and unexpectedly snapping at them. There can be other mood changes as well.

Hypomania

Light box therapy may cause hypomania, a state of elevated mood and impulsive behaviors
Light box therapy may cause hypomania, a state of elevated mood and impulsive behaviors. Michel Tcherevkoff/Getty Images

There are situations where a light box can actually provoke an episode of hypomania. Mania is a period of elevated mood and increased activity. It often occurs cyclically with bipolar disorder. In predisposed individuals, the light box may cause a milder form of a manic period called hypomania.

Insomnia

Light box may cause insomnia as a side effect and make it hard to fall asleep
Light box may cause insomnia as a side effect and make it hard to fall asleep. Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Finally, the light box itself may cause difficulties falling or staying asleep called insomnia. Again, this likely relates to a shift in the circadian rhythm and the body's desire to sleep. If the light box is used at the wrong time, such as in the evening in night owls, it may result in improper timing of sleep. More »

Ways to Alleviate Side Effects

Light box therapy can be used effectively to minimize side effects
Light box therapy can be used effectively to minimize side effects. Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Many of these symptoms might be improved by taking a few simple steps. First, you might simply increase the distance you are sitting from the light box. Additionally, it might be necessary to take short breaks or even shorten the session times. By reducing the amount of time that you are being exposed, the side effects might go away.

For those with sensitive skin or a tendency to mania such as in bipolar disorder, it may be best to simply avoid light box phototherapy all together. If you have questions or concerns, you should speak with your doctor about your treatment and possible alternatives.

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