The history of light therapy in hospital physiotherapy and medicine with emphasis on Australia: evolution into novel areas of practice

Ann Liebert, Hosen Kiat

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: The objective of this narrative review was to investigate the history of light therapy in hospital settings, with reference to physiotherapy and particularly in an Australian context.Types of articles and search method:a review of available literature was conducted on PubMed, Medline and Google Scholar using keywords light therapy, photobiomodulation, physiotherapy, low-level laser, heliotherapy. Physiotherapy textbooks from Sydney University Library were searched. Historical records were accessed from the San Hospital library. Interviews were conducted with the San Hospital Chief Librarian and a retired former Head Physiotherapist from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.Summary: Historically, light treatment has been used in both medical and physiotherapy practice. From its roots in ancient Egypt, India, and Greece, through to medieval times, the modern renaissance in 'light as therapy ' was begun by Florence Nightingale who, in the 1850s, advocated the use of clean air and an abundance of sunlight to restore health. Modern light therapy (phototherapy) had a marked uptake in use in medicine in Scandinavia, America, and Australia from 1903, following the pioneering work of Niels Finsen in the late 19th century, which culminated in Dr Finsen receiving the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the treatment of tuberculosis scarring with ultraviolet (UV) light, and treatment of smallpox scarring with red light. Treatment with light, especially UVB light, has been widely applied by physiotherapists in hospitals for dermatological conditions since the 1950s, particularly in Australia, Scandinavia, USA, England and Canada. In parallel, light treatment in hospitals for hyperbilirubinemia was used for neonatal jaundice. Since the 1980s light was also used in the medical specialties of ophthalmology, dermatology, and cardiology. In more recent years in physiotherapy, light was mostly used as an adjunct to the management of orthopedic/rheumatological conditions. Since the 1990s, there has been global use of light, in the form of photobiomodulation for the management of lymphedema, including in supportive cancer care. Photobiomodulation in the form of low-level laser has been used by physiotherapists and pain doctors since the 1990s in the management of chronic pain. The use of light as therapy is exemplified by its use in the San Hospital in Sydney, where light therapy was introduced in 1903 (after Dr. John Harvey Kellogg visited Niels Finsen in Denmark) and is practiced by nurses, physiotherapists and doctors until the present day. The use of light has expanded into new and exciting practices including supportive cancer care, and treatment of depression, oral mucositis, retinopathy of prematurity, and cardiac surgery complications. Light is also being used in the treatment of neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, traumatic brain injury, and multiple sclerosis. The innovative uses of light in physiotherapy treatment would not be possible without the previous experience of successful application of light treatment.Conclusion: Light therapy has had a long tradition in medicine and physiotherapy. Although it has fallen somewhat out of favour over the past decades, there has been a renewed interest using modern techniques in recent times. There has been continuous use of light as a therapy in hospitals in Australia, most particularly the San Hospital in Sydney where it has been in use for almost 120 years.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)389-400
Number of pages12
JournalPhysiotherapy Theory and Practice
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Australia
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Phototherapy/history
  • Physical Therapy Modalities/history
  • photobiomodulation
  • Physiotherapy
  • history
  • light therapy
  • phototherapy


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