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Sunlight Reduces Need for Pain Medication

Posted - Mar. 3, 2004 at 6:20 a.m.



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Sunlight may be a key prescription for easing surgical pain and saving millions of dollars in hospital pharmacy costs, according to a study out today.

Surgery patients in rooms with lots of natural light took less pain medication, and their drug costs ran 21% less than for equally ill patients assigned to darker rooms, a scientist will report.

Those in the brighter rooms also had lower stress levels and said they felt less pain the day after surgery and at discharge, says Bruce Rabin, a physician and immunologist at the University of Pittsburgh. He'll present the findings at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Orlando.

It's thought to be the first evidence that sunlight can affect the perception of pain.

Findings will generate major attention at hospitals, predicts Dale Woodin, a health care engineering expert with the American Hospital Association in Chicago. ''Whenever you can tie the environment to clinical outcomes and costs like this, it's huge,'' Woodin says.

Light meters showed that darker rooms at Montefiore University Hospital in Pittsburgh had 46% less natural light than those on the sunny side, says Rabin and co-author Jeffrey Walch. They randomly housed 89 spinal fusion surgery patients on one side or the other. Although the hospital light came from the sun, some bulbs on the market are advertised as duplicating natural sunlight, Rabin says.

Hospital pharmacies spent more than $21 billion in 2002, says pharmacist Lee Vermeulen of the University of Wisconsin, whose team does yearly reports from numbers collected by IMS Health.

''It's very impressive to get savings in the 20% range,'' Vermeulen says. Pain medications are not among the most expensive drugs used in hospitals, he says. But heavy use of pain relief drugs often creates gastrointestinal problems and delays walking, which can cause doctors to prescribe blood thinners and other expensive drugs. Rabin and Walch haven't looked at overall drug usage yet.

There's strong evidence that people feel less pain if they're in a better mood and under less stress, says Russell Portenoy, chairman of the department of pain medicine and palliative care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Bright light has been shown to improve mood, ''so mood may be what's leading them to use less pain medication,'' he says. Bright light triggers the release of ''feel good'' brain chemicals such as serotonin, some research has found.

Also, nurses and doctors may be cheered by the brightly lit rooms and treat patients differently than those in dim rooms. Such differing treatment could reduce drug use, too, Portenoy adds.

Hospital planners are aiming for more natural light, says Woodin, but it's often easier to capture sunlight with a new building than a remodeled older one. ''Even the older ones are trying to move toward more light. We really need to get away from those long, dark corridors of old-time hospitals.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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