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Heliotherapy - light therapy

Finsen light treatment for Lupus, 1900.

Finsen light treatment for Lupus, 1900.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

In Greek mythology, Helios was the god of the Sun, the charioteer who drove the Sun across the sky each day. Hippocrates was a great advocate of the Sun’s healing properties. Although heliotherapy traditionally refers to treatments that use natural sunlight, the term is also applied to artificial sources of ultraviolet, visible or infrared light radiation.

From the late 1800s, heliotherapy - sometimes called phototherapy - became a key part of certain treatment regimes for tuberculosis, notably tuberculosis of the bones, joints and skin, as prolonged exposure to sunlight can kill the bacteria which cause the disease. Infected children who were sent out to special homes and hospital retreats were encouraged to spend as much time outdoors as possible. These children had often come from dark and dingy city slums and exposing their skin to sunshine raised their levels of vitamin D, which also helped them fight the bacteria.

As sunlight is not available at all times, artificial alternatives were developed that could mimic the Sun’s beneficial effects. The Finsen lamp, invented by Faeroese physician Niels Ryberg Finsen, is perhaps the best-known example. An ultraviolet lamp, it allowed flexible treatment in all seasons and its rays could be concentrated onto the most affected parts of a patient’s body. Its greatest success was in the treatment of lupus - tuberculosis of the skin - for which Finsen was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1903.


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