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Biofeedback for Headaches & Migraines: Overruling My Personal Demons

Biofeedback is the most highly regarded non-drug treatment of headache disorders and migraine. The top results from Googling “biofeedback headache” are reputable mainstream organizations and publications. Research and anecdotal evidence back it up.

And yet I’ve never tried it. Yep, I’ve tried nearly every other treatment under the sun, including three surgeries, and never tried this simple, effective, noninvasive treatment. I’d like to say that in some visceral way I wasn’t “ready” for biofeedback. That’s a cop out.

The truth is that if it works, all these years of suffering will have been in vain. You see, when I was in high school, my doctor suggested to my parents that I try biofeedback. The simple version of the complicated story: the treatments were too expensive and insurance didn’t cover it.

With tears streaming down my face, I admitted to Hart last night I was afraid to try biofeedback because if it works, I will have wasted so much time. “Have the last 10 years been a waste?,” he asked. Of course not, but they have been terribly painful.

I have left a message to make my first biofeedback appointment. Before I called, I had to rationalize to myself not trying it. The best I’ve come up with: If I’d continued the trajectory I’d set, I’d be married to my work, climbing the ladder in a corporation that cares nothing about bettering the world. Please let me hold on to these exaggerations and wild assumptions. They’re the justification to keep from hating myself.

I haven’t had a single biofeedback session and yet am trying to let go of what might have been if I’d tried 15 years ago. As usual, I’m ahead of myself. Now I need to breathe — and gather more information. What are your experiences with biofeedback? Please leave a comment on this post or on the forum thread, Biofeedback — Have you tried it? Did it work for you?.

13 Responses to Biofeedback for Headaches & Migraines: Overruling My Personal Demons

  1. Jody says:

    Hi Kerrie,

    I started biofeedback when I was in first grade. I went through the Diamond Headache Clinic. I was part of a study so my parents got reduced rates. Otherwise, there is no way they would have been able to afford it. I would never think that anything is a waste. There are so many approaches, so many things to try that you can’t beat yourself up for what you could have done. People have recommended acupuncture to me. It might work. I’m too big of a wuss and skeptic to try. I’ve read too many stories of needles not being sterilized, things getting poked at that shouldn’t have been, that I’m too hesitant to try. But when you have the opportunity you take it and move on. But, I found biofeedback to be a great help over the years (I’m now 33). It took a while to master and it doesn’t always work. It’s like everyone describes- for one part of it, they hook thermometers to your hands and you have to concentrate on raising the temp. For another part, they hooked these electrode-like things to my forehead and I had to concentrate on relaxing and making this noise stop beeping. A pain when your head feels like it is going to explode. It trains you to relax and try to keep it in control during the worst of circumstances. As a child, I had headaches all the time and they were made worse because I would be scared and in so much pain that no one seemed to understand. I would just spiral out of control, which only made the situation worse. With biofeedback I had some new tools to add to the arsenal. You will learn to get in a place where you can make it through the day- maybe you absolutely have to be somewhere and don’t know how to survive. With biofeedback you have a tool to help you get through until you can get yourself home or until you can get to your meds. It doesn’t always work and never worry if it doesn’t. It takes a while to master and I’m still learning. But if you think of it as something to add, then that is a great way to approach it. Sorry to ramble and hope this helps. Good luck.

  2. Diana Lee says:

    I wouldn’t say it was a waste of time for me, but it wasn’t especially helpful, either. I have some doubts about how effective it really is for people who have as many headaches/migraines as we do. But I do know a girl who had migraines as a child like me and was able to stop having them ever again through biofeedback. Of course, the reality is that she probably grew out of them, too, like a lot of people do. Still, it’s the kind of thing that definitely won’t hurt you or make you worse so I’m 100% in favor of everyone trying it.

    I can totally understand your feelings about all the what ifs, though. But honestly, you can’t put all that guilt on yourself. We do the best we can at the moment and can’t expect more from ourselves. We’re only human, after all.

  3. Susan says:

    I tried it, not specifically for migraine but because I was trying to get my daughter (with anxiety issues) to learn how to do it. I had sensors hooked up to me (for heartbeat and temp I think) and then there was guided relaxation.

    It helped me learn more specifically how to put my body in a relaxed state, and I got quite good at it. Unfortunately that never seemed to help for my migraines at all, once they started.

    I think that it might be a good tool to use though, in lowering the overall stress on the body and thus decreasing the migraines. The only specific trigger for my migraines is hormones. My other ones seem to come when I have some combination of triggers (lack of sleep, change in weather, change in schedule, low blood sugar, peanut butter, caffeine, ????) that add up and somehow stress my system and bring me past the migraine pain threshold. I suppose if I practiced guided relaxation regularly it might bring my overall stress level down and I might not reach that pain threshold.

    Hmmm, that’s actually the first time I’ve thought of it that way. I haven’t been struggling with migraines as much recently (menopause and amatryptilene – YAY!!) but I might have to try using relaxation techniques on a daily basis to see if it helps.

  4. Ken says:

    I agree with Diana, seemed like just another stress reduction/relaxation technique. Useful skills but certainly not a huge help to me. Though I must say I’d been studying meditation, Qigong and other eastern arts like that for a while so that’s what this really seemed like to me. A western way of using machines to do the same thing as the more traditional eastern practices.

  5. Miss Vertigo says:

    “With tears streaming down my face, I admitted to Hart last night I was afraid to try biofeedback because if it works, I will have wasted so much time. “Have the last 10 years been a waste?,” he asked. Of course not, but they have been terribly painful.”

    Yes… but imagine the next ten years being the same. What if this is the thing that works for you, and you never try it? Imagine yourself in ten years’ time, posting “I wish I hadn’t been afraid to try it”.

    I don’t have any experience of it myself but I wish you good luck with it, Kerrie. I really hope you start to see some results soon.

  6. Kerrie says:

    Thanks, everyone. That’s great information. If only one of the places I tried to make an appointment would return my calls. . .

    I figure if biofeedback doesn’t work for my migraine episodes, it will be nice to be able to warm my hands.

    Kerrie

  7. MaxJerz says:

    Kerrie, I did a few sessions of biofeedback the end of last year. Biofeedback doesn’t necessarily lessen my pain, but it *does* lessen my anxiety I get from being in pain. I never expected it to be the magic pill that would fix my head, and it wasn’t. But I did learn some techniques that are simple enough to incorporate into my daily routine.

    If nothing else, it’s another tool to add into your toolbox for coping with the pain.

  8. alex says:

    Your mention of Hart, as with other mentions of him, make me wonder about his perspective of your condition. Does it ever become a source of tension between the two of you? Has he ever sought help as a caregiver of a chronically ill person? (A blog entry on such things might be useful to your readers.)

    *******
    Hart has episodic migraine, which makes him more sympathetic. He’s also an amazing person.

    The main source of tension between us is my guilt. It bothers him when I apologize profusely about canceling plans, being boring because I’m lying on the couch, the messy kitchen. . . . You know, all the the things I can’t control. He can’t stand that I beat myself up for burdening him. He knows I have no choice in the matter and wishes I wouldn’t feel so guilty about something that’s not my fault.

    Last weekend I tried to hide how I was feeling from him. After talking about it for months, he bought Rock Band and was so excited to play. Unfortunately, he was playing drums in the room above the living room, where I usually camp out. He was so happy that I couldn’t interrupt him. He had no idea I was hiding in bed until he looked for me a few hours later. He found me curled up under the covers, feeling sorry for myself and crying, which I try not to do because it makes my head worse. He, of course, knew what a hard time I was having and was upset that I hadn’t told him what was going on.

    He’s never sought help for caregivers. I’m not sure he views himself as a caregiver, but as the partner of someone who hurts. Does that distinction makes sense?

    Thanks for the idea of doing a post on it. Maybe he’ll be willing to write something about it.

    Take care,
    Kerrie

  9. Donimo says:

    I tried biofeedback many years ago and I did find it helpful for relaxation, but not pain control. I’ve gone to a couple of pain clinics and it seemed like the people with migraines were the ones who benefited the most from the programs. I think the daily meditation and exercise recommended by the programs help lower the number of migraines. I doubt you’ll get full relief from something like biofeedback, but it might help lower the intensity or frequency.

    If something works, maybe it would be good just to let it work for you and not apply guilt-based hindsight! Never fun. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked for you many years ago. How could you ever know? Perhaps, you can just allow yourself your own process, your own timing and if something you try today or this month or this year works… bonus!

    ***********
    I’m trying, I’m trying! Thanks for the support.

    Kerrie

  10. Bix says:

    I tend to find that the warming exercises for migraine are easy to remember and help to some degree. I’m less sure about the tension headache relief (relative to other relaxation methods) but then again, what I thought have been non-stop tension headaches for the last 6 months may have turned out to be allergen-induced sinus headaches, so take that part with a few grains of salt.

  11. Elke says:

    Hi, I would definitely try it. I did biofeedback briefly, but the therapist I had used a method that did not enable me to become independent of the gadgets, so I couldn’t use it on a daily basis and not during an attack. So when you look for somebody to teach you, make sure you will be independent after the initial learning phase.
    But here is something to encourage you, I use an old German technique called autogenic training, that just like biofeedback works through raising bodytemperature and muscle relaxation and it has done wonders for my migraines. I had to practice for two month before I saw a difference, but my migraines are milder and fewer now. And during an attack it helps me to keep the tension in the neck at bay and all over the head, reducing the pain therefore. Even if the biofeedback doesn’t “cure” you, it might just tip the balance in your favour, so that your preventive medicines can help you better, or your abortive is more effective. As biofeedback has no side effects, do try it and don’t worry about not having it done it years ago, there is a time and a season to everything, and this seems to be the right time for you to try it.
    I am actually about to give it a second chance myself, I just ordered a book this morning “Migraines be Gone” by Kelsie Kenefick, because there is always room for improvement with migraines!
    And last but not least, biofeedback and relaxation techniques and their effects on migraines is not just a bunch of vodoo. There is real scientific literature of which I have read quite a bit, showing often that these techniques are just as effective as some of the “miracle” preventive drugs.
    I hope you find somebody who understand migraines and will really take an interest in teaching und helping you. Best wishes!

  12. Dolores says:

    Biofeedback didn’t Work for me at all. I got to the point where I could control my tempurature, but it still did no good.

    therapist: Good! You’re doing it perfectly! Are you feeling better now? Is your headache gone?

    me: No. I don’t think you get migraines. I need drugs.

    therapist: You can get addicted to those you know. Maybe you should try…

    me: Migraine drugs aren’t addictive and the work in 15 minutes.

    The whole thing was a waste of money for me.

  13. rusureuwant2know says:

    @MaxJerz There is no “coping with the pain” – biofeedback is nothing more than relaxation therapy which may work for tension headaches but it’s a gimmick in regards to migraines.
    @Delores – Same thing happened to me. The only thing that worked for me was getting put to sleep for 12 hours. Otherwise, excruciating pain and puking for up to 4 days if the migraine was not aborted. Triptans actually make them worse (apparently I’m not the only one that has had that experience)and they can cause heart attacks (a 14 year old boy had one during the drug trials.)

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