Mind & Body • 27 May 2020
Biofeedback and Pain
Biofeedback and Pain
By Darlene Lee, ND, MSW, BCB
Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute
UCI Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences
Biofeedback is process by which an individual’s physiological measures such as heart rate, breathing, sweating, and muscle tension are measured and shown to them as they are taught tools to control these measures. This process teaches people how to have more control over their responses to stress, and builds skills in emotional self-regulation. Integrative Biofeedback offers biofeedback in a setting where other aspects of health that can influence the stress response, such as sleep habits and hormone balance, are also evaluated.
Biofeedback can be an effective treatment for chronic pain. There is strong evidence for the use of biofeedback to address many types of pain, including headaches, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, and fibromyalgia (Nesturiuc, 2007, Crider, 2005, Busch, 2012, Sielski, 2017). It can also be an empowering tool for those that suffer from chronic pain, because it gives individuals a greater sense of control over the triggers that often lead to debilitating pain.
Using biofeedback, we can address muscle tension that directly influences pain. For instance, in the case of TMJ pain, biofeedback teaches an individual to be aware of the clenching of the jaw (Crider, 2005). Using sensors that detect muscle tension, we can use biofeedback techniques to “down-train” muscle tension, and to be aware of lower and lower levels of tension. Similarly, with tension headaches, we can train an individual to become more aware of tension in their head, neck, shoulders and back, and to be able to decrease muscle tension. In the case of migraine headaches, temperature biofeedback can also be helpful – as we teach an individual to warm their extremities, vasodilation can occur, aborting one of the triggers for the complex cascade of events involved in migraine pain (Nestoriuc, 2007).
In other cases, the rationale for the use of biofeedback techniques lies in the connection between pain perception and the stress responses. For instance, in the case of fibromyalgia and related disorders, biofeedback can teach valuable skills in learning to “self-regulate,” or to respond to stressors in a way that does not throw the body into the “fight or flight” mode (Adams, 2015, Busch 2012). By learning to self-regulate, those that suffer from chronic pain can achieve a greater balance between sympathetic, or “fight or flight” mode, and parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” mode, which can decrease the severity of pain.
Biofeedback has also been shown to be very helpful with mood-related effects that can accompany chronic pain, such as depression and anxiety, as well as with coping skills . Especially when used in an Integrative Biofeedback setting, it can be an empowering and effective tool in combatting chronic pain.
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