Biofeedback can train your mind to relieve hidden sources of pain.
For six years, Kalin Lancaster of Gainesville, Georgia, battled migraines so debilitating that if she tried to eat, she’d vomit. It would feel like they were squeezing my brain, remembers the 22-year old student. Lancaster took medications like Depakote (divalproex sodium) and Topamax (topiramate) and tried complementary therapies like acupuncture, but she didn’t find lasting relief until she learned biofeedback, which taught her to both prevent migraines and recognize when one was coming on.
Simply put, biofeedback teaches patients how to control seemingly involuntary body functions like heart rate, skin temperature, muscle tension and blood pressure. The technique dates back to the 1960s, when researchers discovered people could regulate their own blood pressure through breathing and relaxation. That led to a key principle of biofeedback: Many of our body’s unconscious habits poor posture, clenching muscles, breathing shallowly contribute to pain, and we have the capacity to change those bad habits by using our minds. Today, doctors use biofeedback to manage conditions from urinary incontinence to chronic pain. L. John Mason, Ph.D., a biofeedback practitioner and the founder of the Stress Education Center in Oak Harbor, Washington, says he’d had great results in treating tension headaches, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, dental problems and jaw, neck and shoulder pain.
HOW IT WORKS
During a biofeedback session you may be connected via electrodes on your head, hands, chest or other body parts to a machine that monitors bodily functions like heart rate, temperature, sweat production and muscle contraction. The electrodes then send signals to a monitor that displays the results on a grid or scale. You’ll be trained to use your mind to adjust any physiological responses that are out of whack. Biofeedback teaches the dumbest parts of the brain, the parts involved with things we don’t even think about, to control bodily responses, says Elliot Wineburg, M.D., a New York City psychiatrist who specializes in biofeedback.
How, exactly, does your mind get trained? Biofeedback practitioners use a variety of approaches to make it easier to control the links between brain and body. You may learn breathing techniques or simply be told to relax different parts of your body. Wineburg gives verbal support or admonishment. If a patient’s elevated heart rate is dropping, for instance, Wineburg might say, You’re doing very well. Nice work. If, on the other hand, muscle tension is holding steady or increasing, he might scold, saying That’s very bad. That’s not what you’re here to learn. It’s based on the very simple idea that if you are rewarded for something, you’ll do it again and again, Wineburg explains. And if you’re punished, you’ll stop doing it.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly how biofeedback works, though it’s probably connected to stress reduction. Keep in mind that biofeedback, like most other noninvasive, nondrug approaches, requires patience to learn and to see the benefits. Sometimes, it makes eight to 12 weeks just to figure out where you’re holding tension, Mason says. But the investment can really pay off: Kalin Lancaster has had only one migraine in the two years since she started biofeedback. And, she says, that wasn’t nearly as bad as what they used to be. To find a qualified practitioner, search the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback’s directory at aapb.org.