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Biofeedback for Chronic Pain

Image of Dr. Emily LudwigEmily A. Ludwig, PsyD
As a Psychologist trained to help patients who suffer with the emotional effects of Chronic Pain, I employ a variety of methods to bring healing. Biofeedback is an important self-help tool that patients learn to use whenever they are feeling stressed, painful or otherwise need to reconnect their mind and body. In this article, I will detail how biofeedback works well for some who find pain to be a part of their everyday lives.
When we talk about biofeedback, many of you may recall the old Woody Allen movies where, for years, he consults his trendy Manhattan shrink trying learn ways to control his neurotic, stressed-out tendencies, but somehow never quite gets the hang of it. Luckily, learning biofeedback is not hard to master, but like anything, it requires some practice and daily use to become a meaningful treatment tool.
Pain causes our body to be stressed and our mind often interprets this stress negatively. When stressed, our sympathetic nervous system cranks up, causing our body to release the hormone cortisol, which is a key ingredient in the “fight or flight” response, along with norepinephrine. Way back in our history, the flight or fight response was key to our survival in a world inhabited by many predators that wanted to eat us and unfriendly neighbors who wanted our cave, food, or spouse for themselves and were willing to fight to the death for it.
Today, this hold-over response from a bygone epoch often brings about this chemical overreaction to everyday issues, such as dealing with traffic on your morning commute, talking on the phone to an unpleasant relative, chronic pain or work conflicts that may arise. As a result, those same hormones are released into our blood stream, causing our blood pressure to rise, our heart rate to increase, our muscles to tighten, and our teeth to clench or grind. These are the symptoms of a stress response and over time, can be very harmful to our health. But how do we control these unwanted reactions?
Biofeedback is an integrative behavioral technique that is used to help patients change their perception of stress and how their mind and body reacts to it. Training is required to help the patient recognize their particular stress symptoms and specific monitoring equipment is used to help. Pulse, heart rate, sweating, blood pressure, breathing, muscle tension or dysfunction can all be monitored and measured. The equipment isn’t used to treat any of these responses, but is used to help the patient become aware of how their body reacts to stressors that occur in everyday life.
The key is when these stress responses are observed and measured, I help the patient respond to those reactions by a series of mental exercises designed to decrease the stress responses. Those mental exercises include guided imagery, relaxation techniques, like diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness, meditation and self-hypnosis. With practice, the patient learns to recognize the signs of stress, without assistance from the biofeedback equipment and begins to implement the self-care techniques immediately to reduce their stress response, without my guidance.
Biofeedback is a clinically proven therapeutic method shown to have great benefit for those who suffer with chronic pain, which is exacerbated by stress. While not a one-size-fits-all modality, biofeedback is one of the tools I have used to effectively help patients become more aware of the control they possess over how their body reacts to stress and how they can positively impact their levels of pain. No medication required!

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