A history of photobiomodulation

Auguste Rollier (centre) seeing a patient undergoing heliotherapy in his clinic in Leysin (Copyright:  Association pour le Patrimoine de Leysin)

Auguste Rollier (centre) seeing a patient undergoing heliotherapy in his clinic in Leysin (Copyright: Association pour le Patrimoine de Leysin)

Light has been around even before the first signs of life – in fact it’s fundamental to life.

The movement of the Earth around the Sun has had great significance for the peoples of the world as can be seen by the many ancient artefacts from the Neolithic period when agriculture first developed. It was important to know the seasons for sowing seeds and harvesting crops.

Heliotherapy, derived from the Greek word ‘helios’ for the sun, was proposed and developed by the Swiss physician Auguste Rollier in the early 1900s. He was following the work of Niels Finsen, a physician from the Faroe Islands, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the use of light on skin tuberculosis (lupus vulgaris).

Auguste Rollier was so inspired by the results of Niels Finsen that he designed and constructed solaria throughout Switzerland that were often copied across Europe. The buildings all had south-facing balconies and terraces to take advantage of the sunlight. School children attended classes outside, even in winter.

Healthcare in the 1850s

The apothecaries concocted drugs and treated patients on lifestyle – they were the equivalent of the GP today. There were also surgeons who had split from barbers a hundred years before. Some of the common diseases at that time were cholera, TB, diphtheria, polio, chicken pox and small pox.

Heliotherapy and antibiotics

In the late nineteenth century the medical community adopted heliotherapy as a treatment for many conditions ranging from skin tuberculosis and respiratory problems, nerve damage and wounds.

However heliotherapy lost its appeal after the development of antibiotics such as penicillin in 1928.

It is said that ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ which expresses the problems of too many ultra violet rays. So it is possible to overdo it as Henry Gauvain said ‘Sunlight is like a good champagne, it invigorates and stimulates, but in excess it intoxicates and poisons’. Auguste Rollier was emphatic that the best sunlight was before noon between 8am and 12pm when the temperature is still cool – in other words longer wavelengths, the safer end of the near-visible spectrum.

Antibiotics have for many years brought great relief and saved many lives from formerly fatal infections. However, today antibiotics are becoming increasingly impotent to bacteria as they remodel themselves and develop resistance.

Heliotherapy and Photobiomodulation

And so we return to heliotherapy but this time with a much greater understanding of how and why it works. This understanding began with the creation of the first functioning laser in 1960 by American Ted Maiman. In 1967 Endre Mester discovered that specific wavelengths have specific effects and that the red and near-infrared wavelengths have regenerative properties and called it biostimulation. Today, since 2015, it is called Photobiomodulation.

Heliotherapy is now well understood but remains a very broad brush. However Photobiomodulation is refined to the point that the precision of wavelengths, power, time beam area, pulsed or continuous parameters ensures its effectiveness.