American life is fast-paced, busy and productive. But in that rush and stress, it’s easy to lose touch with what’s going on in our bodies and how they are reacting to the hustle and bustle of daily living.
Anyone who’s come home with a tension headache has experienced this disconnect. The headache likely started earlier, perhaps during a meeting, while driving or just sitting hunched over the computer. Without noticing it, your neck and shoulders tense while your breathing becomes shallow and your heart rate speeds up. Over an hour or more, those unchecked physical reactions to normal daily stress create a headache.
While biofeedback can help prevent a typical tension headache, it is especially beneficial for people with more significant physical, mental or emotional stressors, such as a traumatic injury, chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, depression or migraines. In these cases the patient often experiences a vicious downward spiral as the body reacts to stress and pain in ways that create even more stress and pain. It’s like the body is trying to run away, but can’t. Biofeedback can stop this spiral by helping patients better understand, recognize and control physical responses.
What is Biofeedback?
In essence, biofeedback uses technology to give us measureable information about our bodies. Each time you step on a scale you are using biofeedback. The scale tells you how much you weigh.
But therapeutic biofeedback goes much further. It uses state-of-the-art technology to provide information about even the most imperceptible changes in the body’s response to the environment, both good and bad.
Here’s how it works at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute. The patient sits in a comfortable recliner and has one or more non-invasive monitors attached. We can monitor everything from heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension to skin temperature, sweat response, breathing and brain waves. These monitors measure tiny changes that are communicated in real time through a visual and/or audio representation, either as a projection on a screen or through a sound.
As a patient relaxes her muscles, for example, she might see a flower opening or hear a bell chime. Or, she might see her heart rate on a graph. There are many feedback options and we work to find the ones that make the most sense to the patient. It works like a complicated mirror that allows the brain and body make needed adjustments.
Along with the feedback, patients receive coaching by the therapist who teaches a variety of techniques patients can use to change their own physical responses.
Breathing techniques, for example, help patients relax by decreasing blood pressure and muscle tension and other physical stress responses. While a patient may already know that breathing from the diaphragm is beneficial, with biofeedback monitors over the chest and abdomen, he can see just how effectively he is breathing and learn how to breathe better. Then, armed with this better body awareness and control, in his everyday life he can more quickly recognize and change his breathing patterns when it becomes shallow, such as when he is in pain.
Because it focuses on the connection and communication between mind and body, biofeedback is the middle place between psychology and physical therapy. We know mental stress creates physical stress and vice-versa while learning to relax can improve both our physical and mental health.
Since mental and emotional stress go hand-in-hand with physical stress, we have psychologists or licensed mental health counselors oversee all biofeedback sessions at St. Luke’s. This way, patients can also address any mental or emotional issues that might be contributing to their physical issues. Together this becomes an upward spiral toward a healthier life.
But just as a scale doesn’t change a person’s weight, biofeedback doesn’t change the body’s stress response. Change and improvement are still up to the patient to use the skills and knowledge they learn through biofeedback. This can be very empowering. Instead of being a victim of pain, the patient learns to recognize and change physical responses like tense muscles, shallow breathing or cold hands, stopping the pain cycle in its tracks.
While it doesn’t always treat the underlying injury that created the pain, biofeedback gives patients the tools to change their body’s relationship to that pain.
Typically it takes between 12 and 24 weekly or biweekly sessions for patients to gain a better understanding of how their bodies are reacting and learn the techniques and skills to change those reactions. But when they do, the benefits are significant. Patients report reduced pain, better concentration, less anxiety, better sleep and other improvements that affect their day-to-day quality of life.
With a better body awareness, patients have the ability to recognize their body’s response to stress and change it.
Anthony Whitney, MS, LMHC, BCB, manages the St. Luke’s Pain Rehabilitation and Psychology department, which specializes in treating chronic pain. As a licensed mental health counselor and certified biofeedback specialist with expertise in auto-regulation, sEMG, heart rate variability, peak performance training and computer-based treatment using EEG based neurofeedback, Whitney strives to create a unique treatment experience that enhances each patient’s ability to experience their full potential.