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Biofeedback: Another Way to Manage Pain

You probably don't give much thought to whether your muscles are tense, how fast you're breathing or the number of times your heart beats in a minute. These things occur whether you're aware of them or not. They're beyond your control. Or, are they?

Actually, you may be able to learn how to regulate these types of bodily functions using noninvasive techniques. In 1908, a Harvard doctor first started studying progressive muscle relaxation as a behavioral technique that involves muscle tension and relaxation. In the 1960s, this was further developed into what is known today as biofeedback. Professional organizations have defined biofeedback as a method of learning to control one's bodily functions by monitoring one's own brain waves, blood pressure, and degree of muscle tension. The knowledge of these results can influence or modify thinking, emotions, and behavior to achieve desired physiological changes. 

Potential pain relief is probably the most popular reason for learning biofeedback. It's been shown to ease migraines and tension-type headaches, as well as low back pain, fibromyalgia, and other types of chronic pain. The National Cancer Institute recommends trying biofeedback as a way to relax. It may help you cope with pain from cancer or its treatment.

Biofeedback is meant to be a complementary therapy. It's best thought of as part of a program with other pain therapies, such as medicines, relaxation, stress reduction, physical therapy, and other psychological-behavioral therapies.

How it works

If tight muscles tend to trigger a headache, for example, then learning how to relax those muscles may help you prevent the pain. But, first you need to recognize when you're feeling tense and your muscles are beginning to tighten. This is where a licensed biofeedback technician can help. He or she attaches painless sensors to your body that send information about your tension level to a machine.

The machine translates the tension into a signal, such as a flashing light or beeping noise. The technician then coaches you in relaxation techniques to affect the signal and your tension level. Eventually, you may be able to recognize when you're tense without the biofeedback machine, and use the techniques you've learned to relax on your own.

Before you try it, keep these things in mind:

  • Biofeedback training may or may not be covered by your insurance company. Check with your health plan first.

  • Your health care provider may be able to help you find a qualified biofeedback technician. Let him or her know that you intend to try it, and check in occasionally to discuss how it's going.