Biofeedback Therapy: The Mind-Body Connection to Headache Treatment
Biofeedback is a scientifically proven, non-drug therapy our patients use every day to control headache symptoms and reduce headache frequency. It is an acquired skill that can be applied on-demand to change specific responses of the body and diminish – or even stop – headache pain.
It a a critical therapy method for children – or any patient – looking for lifelong ways to control headache beyond medications.
Biofeedback teaches you how to control bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, which once were considered to be beyond voluntary control. Decades of research has proven that, with daily practice, patients can be taught this voluntary control, and use it effectively. In fact, our five-year retrospective study showed 85% of all adults and 90% of all children who learn temperature and electromyographic, or EMG, biofeedback techniques show significant reduction in severity, duration and frequency of headaches.
Our clinic features dedicated biofeedback laboratories and trained clinicians who take you step-by-step through the therapeutic process. State-of-the-art technology is used to display body temperature and EMG results in real time to ensure you understand when and how you are controlling your autonomic responses.
Studies completed in the late 1960s by Neal Miller; Ph.D. of Rockefeller University, showed that laboratory animals could be trained to increase or decrease their heart rates by simply being rewarded for producing the desired physiological responses. Later, by teaching six laboratory animals to blush only in the right ear and another six to blush only in the left, the Miller research group was able to demonstrate that animals could learn to dilate specific blood vessels despite the fact that these organs are controlled by sympathetic, or involuntary, nerves.
At the same time, other scientists worked with human subjects. Given feedback about specific automatic physiological responses of which they were normally unaware, these subjects were taught to modify or control such automatic processes as heart rate and hand temperature. Within the last 35 years, continued research has shown biofeedback to be a viable therapeutic tool in the treatment of many disorders, including headache, high blood pressure, Raynaud's disease, muscle spasm, chronic anxiety, neuro-muscular dysfunction, epilepsy, insomnia, asthma and numerous other conditions.
It was fortuitous that biofeedback was discovered to be a useful tool in the treatment of headache. A research team under Elmer Green, Ph.D., director of Menninger Foundation's Psychophysiology Laboratory, was testing biofeedback as a possible method of treatment for certain mental and physical conditions. A group of 33 women were taught to direct blood flow to their hands on a voluntary basis. One of the subjects happened to be a migraine patient. During the course of one of the sessions she found that her headache stopped completely. Dr. Green observed that this occurred at the same time that her hands were becoming warmer, meaning more blood flowed there.
The experiment was then reproduced, using another migraine patient, and the same results were found. With no explanation for this phenomenon in the literature, Dr. Green speculated the process of increasing blood flow into the hands diverted the blood from the head. He observed, in fact, cold hands were common to migraines. Since blood pulsates through swollen, painfully distended blood vessels during migraine headaches, he reasoned that diverting the blood flow in this way actually decreased the swelling, and thus the pain.
A pilot study was then organized by Joseph Sargeant, M.D., director of the Department of Internal Medicine at Menninger, using only headache patients as subjects. After a month of training with feedback from electronic equipment, 75 percent of the subjects were able to raise their hand temperature, even without the use of instrumentation. The technique proved successful in reducing and even eliminating headaches in the vast majority of the subjects. Still another biofeedback technique was developed to help control tension-type headaches. This type of headache is caused by muscle contraction and spasm.
At the University of Colorado, Thomas Budzynskl, Ph.D., Johann Stoyva, Ph.D., and Charles Adler, M.D., set out to determine whether this type of approach would be helpful with muscle tension and the resulting pain. The EMG was used to monitor tension in specific muscle groups. Immediate feedback about changes in tension was given to the subjects. The participants were then asked to reproduce the changes that would make the instrument show a decrease in muscle tension.
After a short period of training the subjects were able to learn to release muscle tension quickly and accurately, eventually without the use of instrumentation and feedback. They were thus able to reduce and even eliminate pain. Subsequent research has shown that the use of EMG feedback was also useful in the treatment of migraine headaches as well. Currently, the protocol for both type of headaches is a combination of the two modalities.
Since biofeedback is essentially a psychophysiological process, the patient, after several clinic sessions, can expect to experience a significant change in symptoms. These changes can promote feelings of greater physical and emotional well being. Biofeedback allows the patient to play an active and integral role in maintaining his or her health. The single most relevant measure of the success of biofeedback training is the degree to which headache symptoms are reduced in terms of severity, duration and frequency. Evaluations are made by the physician at appropriate intervals and medication is reduced or eliminated whenever possible.
Medical Coverage for Biofeedback
Some insurance companies, recognizing the value of biofeedback in the treatment of headache, tend to reimburse at least a portion of the cost of the sessions when they are a part of the total treatment program. Actual coverage depends on your individual policy and its limits. Payment is expected at the end of each biofeedback session. If necessary, the biofeedback staff will assist you with insurance claims.