A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Can Red Light Stop Migraines? The Magnificent Seven Say Yes!

Posted by apgaylard on May 17, 2008

The Magnificent Seven, Moviewallpapers.netA recent discussion of claims that shoving a standard red LED up your nose can manage the effects of Hay Fever sent me to my standard text on light therapies: Jacob Liberman‘s excruciatingly bad “Light – Medicine of the Future” (Bear and Company, 1991).

Now, this was not able to shed any light on that deeply implausible idea; but I did come across some more assertions about red light and migraines.  As an occasional sufferer this is of some interest, however, the comments are a stunning example of the shockingly low standards of discourse that pervade the strange world of light therapy.

“…red light was recently shown to be very effective in the treatment of migraine headaches.  In a recent study by Dr. John Anderson, seven migraine sufferers were monitored for up to two years to evaluate the effects of blinking red lights on the severity of their migraines.18  Using a pair of goggles that alternately blinked red light at different speeds before their eyes, 72% of these patients reported that their severe migraines stopped within one hour of beginning the treatment.  Of the remaining 28% (whose migraines did not stop), 93% reported that they felt better.” (p.47 – emphasis is mine)

Now, I don’t have access to the reference provided.  This was published in the Brain/Mind Bulletin; it’s not a peer-reviewed journal – far from it.  In this report there is no mention of using a control group or sham therapy.  There are many other criticisms that could be made; but one thing really stands out: n=7.

That’s right; this was a study of seven people who were asked to self-report in the full knowledge that they were receiving an allegedly helpful therapy.  Of this magnificent seven 72% reported that, “their severe migraines stopped within one hour of beginning the treatment”; that’s 5.04 of them.  Of the remaining 28%, (1.96 participants), 93% of them (1.8228 participants) “felt better”.

Now reporting percentages from such a small sample is not helpful.  What is really being claimed here is that five people reported their migraines stopping within an hour of starting ‘treatment’ and two did not.  This is not impressive, to say the least: R. Barker Bausell recommends at least fifty participants per group.

Returning to the basic arithmetic, the top-level figures of 72% and 28% are just rounded incorrectly; If you are going to present meaningless data in this way, this should be 71% and 29% respectively.  It’s when the second group of two are split between those who felt better and those, presumably, who did not that the arithmetic gets bizarre.  How can you get 93% of two people?

Now, if anyone has a copy of the original report, I’d love to be able to see whether the report contains these simple arithmetic errors or whether the fault lies with Liberman.  Either way it’s an indictment of the scholastic standards of the book and should be an embarrassment to those who endorsed it.

That anyone could say, “Anderson’s results are quite dramatic” based on a study of just seven people, albeit over up to two years, beggars belief.

18.  J. Anderson, Brain Mind/Bulletin 15, no.4 (Jan 1990) p.1


4 Responses to “Can Red Light Stop Migraines? The Magnificent Seven Say Yes!”

  1. dvnutrix said

    Would being exposed to a blinking red light reduce the symptoms of a migraine? I can’t comment on that but a while ago I had an allergic reaction to something that left me with no clear skin and nothing but a continuous scab from my waist to my scalp and ears. Children cried and pointed, women turned their faces and nobody stood within 2 feet of me in either London or Edinburgh at the height of the rush hour.

    Now, I imagine that if somebody had sprayed me with vinegar, rubbed in some honey and unleashed fire ants onto that scab that would be like wearing googles that exposed me to red blinking lights during a migraine. Do I think that it would help? I appreciate that often you have to run experiments to lend conviction to your “No, I don’t think it would” but I would go so far as to say, “No. For sure, no. Under no readily conceivable circumstances, no”.

  2. apgaylard said

    Thanks for the comment. Sorry to hear about your allergy. As a sufferer, I share your scepticism. What are the chances of finding 5 or so atypical sufferers who might say that they found it helpful? If you look for them, I’d say pretty high.

  3. thorgon said

    While I fully support your mocking such a small non-blinded study (& I haven’t read the original either), I would imagine that the percentages refer to incidents of migraine rather than patients. Over a two-year period, say 14 out of 15 migraines were reported to have been helped by the “treatment” for the two patients.

  4. apgaylard said

    That’s a perfectly sensible possible explanation. That would put the blame for the confusion with the reporting of Liberman and his focus on the patients, rather than incidents.

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