Resources, Treatment

Psychological Treatments for Pain

Even though your headaches aren’t “all in your head,” your mind can be a powerful tool for easing them. A study shows that biofeedback or cognitive-behavioral therapy can reduce back pain by about 30%. I assume that headache sufferers could have similar results.

Biofeedback has long been recommended to treat migraine and tension-type headaches, but studies show that it is not helpful for cluster headaches. This article from the Robbins Headache Clinic‘s website is a little technical, but is the best explanation I’ve found on why and how biofeedback treats headaches.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy provided greater relief to participants in the back pain study than did biofeedback. According to the article, this approach “teaches patients to divert their attention from pain and to think about it in a less alarming manner.” Since cognitive-behavioral therapy works to change overall thinking patterns, I wonder if it, unlike biofeedback, could be helpful for cluster headache sufferers.

I know I shouldn’t, but I still balk at such treatments (like with hypnosis). As if my headaches would be proven to be psychological if I were able to use my mind to relieve them. Yet I’ve been doing relaxation exercises during migraines for years. Like it or not, my mind has been involved the whole time.

Do you do biofeedback or other relaxation techniques? What does or doesn’t work for you?

3 thoughts on “Psychological Treatments for Pain”

  1. I did not experience any reduction in migraine frequency with biofeedback. However, I am just starting to get into cognitive behavioral therapy. Maybe it will be useful for me.

    I’d love to hear how it goes. Best of luck.


  2. Kerrie–there is actually a large body of evidence supporting the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in the treatment of episodic and chronic migraine and chronic headache. In fact, there has been sufficient research on CBT in headache that it is considered to have Grade A evidence in terms of evidence-based medicine, which is better than can be said for some of the preventative medicines commonly used.

    And PamC? Biofeedback is indeed useful for migraine–see some of the links below. Unfortunately, though, no treatment helps everybody.

    Some links:

    The above is from AHRQ (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality).
    Pages 4-7 cover CBT; the rest of it deals with biofeedback and relaxation training.
    The behavioral section of the US Headache Consortium Guidelines.
    See pages 11-14
    An older article, but a thorough review.

    Thank you so much! Somehow, looking for research on CBT and headaches didn’t cross my mind when I wrote this post. As always, the information is terrific.


  3. I did biofeedback… I was able to relax my muscles by half. Unfortunately, this did not help my migraines (but that doesn’t seems surprising now that I know biofeedback is for tension and cluster headaches).

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