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How Effective Is Biofeedback for Pain?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 17, 2024
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Biofeedback is a medical system that provides information about body responses like blood pressure and respiratory rate. Machines such as electromyographs and feedback thermometers measure different aspects of physical functioning. Two factors can impact the effectiveness of biofeedback for pain: the disorder’s origin and the afflicted individual. In particular, individuals who have a greater capacity for relaxation often have a more positive response to biofeedback. Related to this connection, disorders compounded by stress also tend to be receptive to biofeedback.

Physiological responses the body produces during stressful situations can compound pain. Both heart rate and breathing rate accelerate, as does blood pressure and muscle contraction. In addition, both the gastrointestinal tract and the brain experience alterations in their normal functioning.

Each of these circumstances are designed to prepare the body for a physical fight. In the absence of these triggers, however, such responses can ironically worsen an already damaged body system or painful situation. Some researchers also believe the sympathetic nervous system that controls many of these responses also powers muscle nerve endings called trigger points. These areas induce pain, making the potential uses of biofeedback even more pronounced.

Since biofeedback addresses the very body changes that stress induces — and since pain both causes and is somewhat caused by stress — then biofeedback is a logical approach to dealing with pain. The process of using biofeedback for pain thus typically involves training the individual to relax when physiological responses are abnormal. An individual who can more readily adapt to relaxation exercises like trained breathing and imagery techniques will more likely experience success with biofeedback. Biofeedback also better alerts individuals when they are in a stressed state, so they can adjust behavior accordingly. Evidence also indicates that individuals in an extremely relaxed state may be able to blunt pain receptors and therefore lessen pain perception.

Pairing biofeedback for pain with a psychological conditioning approach may make the benefits of biofeedback more effective as well. Many physicians use biofeedback for pain as a kind of reward system, or a form of psychological operant conditioning. Patients get a good feeling when they see physical evidence that their biofeedback information is within normal range and that their work has thus paid off. Perhaps the strongest reward for biofeedback is the lessening or the elimination of pain.

The best testament for biofeedback for pain rests in the results. Patients who have not responded to other forms of treatments often thrive under biofeedback approaches. Studies of biofeedback patients indicate overall long-term success rates in painful conditions ranging from arthritis to migraine headaches.

The practice is considered an alternative therapy without sufficient scientific backing in some regions, however. Biofeedback providers must gain specialized certification in many regions, a step that should increase the efficiency and validity of biofeedback processes. Many professionals do agree that biofeedback for pain is a relatively safe and pharmaceutical-free approach, even if they do not entirely degree on the reliability of said approach.

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