Biofeedback therapy for pain is a complementary treatment approach that could have big benefits for people who suffer from neck, leg, and other types of pain. Here’s how biofeedback therapy (also called neurofeedback, neurotherapy, or neurobiofeedback) works.
What is biofeedback therapy for pain?
Biofeedback training focuses on the patient’s ability to retrain their brain to replace negative stimuli with positive. It is noninvasive and comes with very few risks.
Negative stimulation on the body causes it to react in a way to alert our mind that we are experiencing discomfort or trauma. This is usually interpreted by the brain as pain. Pain becomes classified as chronic when it lasts more than three months. Once it crosses this threshold, the body’s natural defenses against pain may be weakened or compromised. This creates a negative biofeedback loop that causes the body to continuously experience the pain.
Biofeedback therapy for pain can restore the body’s natural ability to respond to pain and alleviate negative feelings. It can teach your brain to create positive feelings instead.
How does biofeedback therapy work?
During biofeedback therapy for pain, the patient learns to control involuntary reactions to create more desirable outcomes. A specialist monitors the body’s natural reaction to negative stimuli and helps foster methods to change the way the person processes these feelings. With effective training, patients can turn these experiences into less uncomfortable situations. Specialized machines are used that monitor the patient’s voluntary responses to stimulation that causes pain in the body. The specialist will then lead the patient through a number of psychological and physiological techniques that alter the way their body reacts to stress or pain.
For example, during biofeedback therapy, the specialist may ask the patient to visualize their pain as a red energy. They are walked through the steps of the training session while the specialist monitors their body’s natural reactions. They ask them to visualize relief as a blue energy. With special attention to breathing and heart rate, they are then asked to replace the red, negative energy with the positive blue energy. Visualization like this can give the patients the tools to change the way their body reacts to the pain ultimately replacing it all together.
During training, patients are hooked up to machines measuring body functions.
Access to instant measurements helps patients learn when their efforts are successful, so they can employ the techniques at any time, any place. Each training session lasts about one hour, with the total number dependent on the patient and specific condition. Many patients begin to feel improvements within eight to ten sessions. In addition to the training sessions, specialists will likely assign additional relaxation-type exercises to try at home.
What do they monitor?
Biofeedback therapy for pain works by teaching people how to control physiological processes such as muscle activity and skin temperature. The tools used by a biofeedback training specialist measure the patient’s:
- Heart rate
- Muscle tone
- Brain wave activity
This provides the specialist with the ability to view the patient’s internal processes directly on a computer screen. The patient is also provided access to this information and is taught to use the visual cues to alter behavior.
The most common methods used in biofeedback training include deep breathing to slow the heart rate, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation, a process that involves tightening and then relaxing select muscle groups. Biofeedback training also includes guided imagery, where patients try to visualize a relaxing scene to de-stress the mind.
These processes are all part of the autonomic nervous system, the circuitry of the body that acts without conscious intervention. Biofeedback allows patients to exert control over these systems, achieving better health and reduced pain along the way.
Does biofeedback therapy for pain work?
The human body, once it has mastered biofeedback training, can be able to change its reaction to reinterpret pain. Biofeedback training provides a non-invasive treatment in partnership with relaxation and meditation methods that help patients maintain serenity and reject painful stimuli.
Although biofeedback training is frequently lumped into the category of alternative medicine along with acupuncture and massage, a great number of successful studies have been completed on this treatment, pushing it into the realm of mainstream treatment plans.
For example, a study published by the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that patients suffering from work-related neck pain benefited from learning biofeedback techniques. Participants experienced reduced pain and scored lower on a special scale called the neck disability index. Results held up even after patients were re-evaluated six months later.
There are no perceived side effects of biofeedback training and it can be considered an alternative, natural, and holistic treatment for chronic leg pain. It can effectively be used for treating leg pain as well as a number of other chronic conditions including migraines, asthma, and anxiety.
What can biofeedback therapy help with?
Biofeedback therapy for pain can help treat a number of conditions, including:
- Leg pain
- Phantom limb syndrome
- Knee pain
- Neck pain
Leg pain is a broad category and can be caused by a number of different conditions. Acute leg pain is generally caused as the result of an injury, such as in sports or from a car accident. It can often be treated with home care and rest along with any medical interventions to repair damage. Any pain lasting more than three months, however, shifts into the category of chronic and will require different types of treatment.
Individuals suffering from chronic leg pain may find that biofeedback training is a suitable treatment option. Conditions like phantom limb syndrome and knee pain may be especially helped by biofeedback training.
Phantom limb syndrome
Though the condition is largely unexplained, phantom limb syndrome occurs in patients who have lost a limb due to an accident or amputation. These patients still feel a painful sensation emanating from where the now missing limb was.
Scientists do not entirely understand how phantom limb syndrome affects patients, but they do know that the resulting pain sensations are very real and can be debilitating if not treated. Since the cause of this condition is misunderstood, doctors often try multiple treatments to end or relieve the chronic pain. Treatments such as TENS units, intrathecal pump implants, and spinal cord stimulation have proven to be less effective in treating the condition. Opioid medication has also been prescribed to patients with phantom limb syndrome but this is not recommended as it can lead to problems with side effects and addiction. Specialists have seen success with biofeedback training since it is a low risk method of retraining the body to deal with the painful stimuli. This minimal risk comes from the use of the body’s own reactions to effectively retrain the brain to eliminate the pain emanating from the phantom limb.
Positive results were shown in this study conducted on patients with phantom limb syndrome in 2005. The study’s authors note that:
“Pain was assessed daily using the visual analog scale (VAS), the sum of the sensory descriptors, and the sum of the affective descriptors of the McGill short form. Interrupted time-series analytical models were created for each of the participants, allowing biofeedback sessions to be modeled as discrete interventions. Analyses of the VAS revealed that a 20% pain reduction was seen in five of the nine patients in the weeks after session 4, and that at least a 30% pain reduction (range: 25-66%) was seen in six of the seven patients in the weeks following session 6. Sensory descriptors of pain decreased more than the affective pain descriptors.”
Knee pain is another common leg pain issue that can be difficult to treat. There are many causes of knee pain and it can be difficult to pin down the specific reasons for chronic pain in some patients. It is most commonly caused by osteoarthritis, a wear and tear condition of the cartilage in the joint of the knee. Osteoarthritis also causes inflammation of the joint and can restrict movement and cause pain. While osteoarthritis is generally associated with the elderly, younger populations do occasionally suffer from the condition. Obesity is also a cause of osteoarthritis as the additional weight on the knees begins to wear the protective tissues down. It is a degenerative condition so pain will continue to increase without the proper treatment. The tissues in the knee can become damaged over time due to normal wear and tear
A study of osteoporosis patients in 2011 showed positive results for biofeedback training, specifically for knee pain. The intention was to determine if biofeedback training would be useful long-term for the rehabilitation of knee osteoarthritis.
The study followed 40 patients between the ages of 45 and 70 who had all been previously diagnosed with the condition. The group was split into 2 sections and everyone performed knee strengthening exercises. Half of the patients were also given biofeedback training for 3 weeks. The results were evaluated according to the Western Ontario McMaster Osteoarthritis index (WOMAC) as well as the patients’ overall quality of life. At the end of the study, the patients with biofeedback training seemed better equipped to handle the chronic pain caused by knee osteoarthritis.
Study authors noted that:
“Pain, WOMAC scores and muscle strength improved in both groups but there was no statistically significant differences between two groups (p > 0.05). In both groups physical mobility, pain scores of NHP improved significantly (p < 0.001) while in EMG-biofeedback group energy and sleep scores also improved after treatment (p < 0.05). As reported in the literature, in our study, strengthening exercises improved pain, function, muscle strength and quality of life in patients with knee osteoarthritis.”
Biofeedback, a therapy that involves training yourself to control core body functions such as blood pressure and heart rate, is an increasingly accepted treatment for conditions including neck pain.
People experiencing neck pain from hunching over computers for long hours every day may find relief from biofeedback training, studies say.
Despite biofeedback’s medical success helping people manage neck pain, researchers aren’t sure how it works.
Possible reasons include biofeedback’s focus on relaxation. Studies have shown that stress exacerbates neck pain. For example, Swedish researchers at the University of Gothenburg compared incidences of neck pain among men and women. Among those studied, women experienced both more stress and higher rates of neck pain. Women who were stressed out were particularly susceptible to developing neck pain.
Have you ever tried biofeedback training? Talk to your doctor about finding a biofeedback training specialist if you believe that this treatment can benefit you. Or, you can find a pain specialist in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here.