Last updated: May 01, 2008

Biofeedback, a technique in which patients use their mind to control bodily functions that normally occur automatically, can give patients the skills to lessen their pain at home.

Migraine sufferer Amanda, 39, of Manchester, N.H., found success the first time she experienced biofeedback. In considerable pain that day, her skin temperature was low. But with a few minutes of relaxation training by a biofeedback practitioner, she found that she could raise it.

"I knew that when I get in pain, my [skin] temperature drops," she says. Within a few minutes, Amanda was able to raise it. "The practitioner was shocked because I got it up so quickly. I really did warm up. It's a matter of just clearing your mind and deep breathing."

Sensors detect the body's response to stress, and the patient learns to control those changes.
In a biofeedback session, sensors attached to your body are connected to a monitoring device that measures body functions such as breathing, perspiration, skin temperature, blood pressure, and heartbeat. When you relax, clear your mind, and breathe deeply, your breathing slows and your heart rate dips correspondingly. As the numbers change on the monitors, you begin to learn how to consciously control body functions that are normally unconscious. For many patients, it can be a powerful, liberating experience.

Already familiar with the relaxation techniques of yoga and meditation, Amanda was impressed with what she could accomplish during a biofeedback session. "We think 'I'm tense and there's nothing I can do about it,'" she says. "But if you stop your mind and you breathe, it can help anyone with anything."

Biofeedback patients learn to control the sympathetic nervous system—the ancient "fight or flight" response, which when we are stressed, leaves us with beating hearts, sweaty palms, and tight muscles that can worsen pain. The technique works in several ways.

Patients learn the skill of relaxation
Without biofeedback, "It's as if your eyes were closed and you were trying to write," says John Lefebvre, PhD, a psychology professor at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. "The penmanship would be bad, because you don't have all the information you need. Biofeedback gives you information you may not be aware of." Armed with that knowledge, the goal is to make relaxation "become a skill you can call on," says Lefebvre.

Contracted muscles, which can be a source of pain, calm down
A machine picks up electrical signals in the muscles. Each time they grow more tense, the signal is translated into a flashing lights or beeps. By trying to slow the flashing or beeping, patients end up relaxing their muscles.

Facial muscles release
"Facial muscles have elaborate feedback loops to both branches of the autonomic nervous system," says Richard Gevirtz, PhD, a past president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. "We teach people to profoundly relax their facial muscles." Eventually they figure out how to do a "Mona Lisa relaxed smile," he says, which corresponds to feeling better.

Kenneth Holroyd, PhD, a distinguished professor of health psychology at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, has studied the effect of biofeedback on migraines. "Through trial and error, you can learn to prevent migraines and to stop migraines when they begin to occur," he says. "You can change that physiological response through the action of your mind."

The bottom line for Amanda is that biofeedback "doesn't get rid of the pain, but it helps to not make it worse, and it makes the rest of my body feel better. It's an important skill that I can do on my own."