Light therapy is an alternative treatment method for dry eyes. It works by treating meibomian gland dysfunction, one of the most common causes of dry eye.

When first-line treatments — such as eye drops — do not work, a doctor may recommend intense pulsed light therapy (IPL). Experts believe light therapy works by treating underlying problems with the meibomian glands, which are tiny glands in the eyelid that help lubricate the eyes.

IPL, one of the most common forms of light therapy, uses visible light to reduce inflammation that can cause dry eyes. A newer treatment, low-level light therapy (LLLT), uses invisible light for the same purpose. Some doctors now use the two treatments together.

Research shows that light therapy for dry eyes can be safe and effective. Treating dry eyes can reduce a person’s risk of complications, which include eye injuries, infections, and vision loss.

Read more about how light therapy for dry eyes works, why a person may want the procedure, the risks and safety concerns, and more.

IPL applies bright light to the skin surrounding the eyes in a recurrent, pulsating pattern. It is completely painless.

When the meibomian glands do not produce enough meibum, or when they are blocked, a person’s eyes may feel dry, itchy, and uncomfortable. People may feel as though they have something in their eyes.

Issues with the meibomian glands are some of the most common causes of dry eyes, so using IPL can treat this common underlying cause of dry eye disease.

Doctors have used IPL as an experimental treatment for dry eyes for two decades. As more research has emerged suggesting its effectiveness, it has become mainstream. In 2021, an IPL device specifically for treating dry eyes received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

However, it is important to note that health insurance does not usually cover IPL.

If a person has dry eyes, a doctor will usually first recommend conservative treatment methods. Initially, this can be lifestyle changes, such as avoiding fans, using artificial tears, taking fatty acid supplements, avoiding irritants, and using warm compresses and eyelid massage to help release blocked meibomian glands.

However, these interventions do not work for everyone.

If a person’s symptoms persist, they may experience eye pain or burning. Dry eyes can also cause serious health issues, including vision loss, infections, and damage to the eye. Managing symptoms or addressing the underlying cause may lower the risk of these complications.

IPL may help treat the underlying meibomian gland dysfunction. This may cure dry eyes or substantially reduce symptoms. However, IPL only treats meibomian gland dysfunction, so it will not cure dry eye in people with other conditions, such as aqueous deficiency. This is when the eyes do not produce enough tears.

A 2021 study compared IPL to eyelid gland massage and hot compresses for unblocking clogged meibomian glands. IPL was 90.2% effective, compared to 80% efficacy for the massage and hot compress.

There was no significant difference in the number of adverse events between the two groups, suggesting that IPL carries a similarly low level of risk to eyelid massage.

Additionally, a 2016 study found that IPL, in combination with other methods, was effective in treating dry eyes. The study had people with dry eye undergo both IPL and meibomian gland expression to unclog the glands. This treatment protocol improved symptoms in 89% of participants.

Its high success rate makes IPL a popular choice for people with chronic dry eye that does not respond to other treatments. It may also be a good addition to an existing treatment plan.

There are several reasons that IPL can improve dry eye symptoms.

One explanation says that, during treatment, oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the red blood cells absorbs light from the IPL device. The body converts this light into heat, destroying tiny blood vessels and reducing inflammation and congestion.

This can unlock the meibomian glands, helping them work better.

Another explanation is that the light might slightly warm the eye area, helping to unclog blocked meibomian glands. The warmth may also destroy bacteria that clog glands and cause swelling.

Another form of light therapy is LLLT, which uses near-infrared, or invisible, light. A small 2022 study suggests that LLLT may also effectively treat dry eye, as it showed that LLLT improved meibomian gland function. The study showed minimal improvements in lid swelling, broken lid blood vessels, and meibum secretion, but these changes were not statistically significant.

Although little evidence supports LLLT’s efficacy in treating dry eye, the study showed no serious side effects. This provides preliminary evidence that LLLT may be a safe and effective treatment. Some eye doctors already use it alone or in combination with IPL.

Research on IPL suggests it carries a low risk of complications or serious side effects.

For example, a 2021 study comparing IPL and meibomian gland massage found no significant safety differences between the two treatments. This suggests that IPL carries a similar risk of side effects as other dry eye treatments.

However, IPL may not be suitable for some people with darker skin. Higher levels of melanin in the skin absorb more laser energy, so people with more pigmented skin are more likely to experience skin damage and adverse effects. A healthcare professional may recommend longer wavelength lasers to reduce these risks.

It is important to note that IPL therapy for dry eyes is a medical procedure, not a home remedy, and the devices used for this treatment are unavailable for home use. People should not try to perform light therapy at home. Doing so can cause eye injuries and burns.

People can often manage dry eyes at home, especially if their symptoms are mild. However, a doctor can help if the symptoms are severe or do not improve with home treatment.

A person may want to contact a doctor if they have:

  • frequent eye or eyelid infections
  • dry eyes that cause pain or infections
  • negative side effects following IPL or any other dry eye treatment
  • an eye injury

Light therapy for dry eye may help improve meibomian gland dysfunction, a leading cause of dry eye. While experts have not conclusively determined how it works, they believe it may reduce inflammation and help open the meibomian glands.

People with chronic dry eye that does not respond to home treatment should talk with a doctor about ways to reduce and manage their symptoms. If more conventional treatments do not work, they may recommend IPL or another form of light therapy.

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