When heart specialist John M. Kennedy, M.D., of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, stands at the scrub sink before an operation, he breathes deeply with seven-count exhales, visualizing how he wants the procedure to go. "Athletes use these techniques to perform under pressure, but we can all call on them in our regular lives," Dr. Kennedy says. It starts with knowing what kind of breathing works best for the challenge you're facing. Here's what the latest research shows.
Chronic stress may contribute to the development of the most common types of headaches, including migraines and tension-type headaches. So it's not surprising that alternative treatments aimed at stress reduction, such as biofeedback and relaxation, are well-studied and considered effective treatments for some patients with headaches. There are additional "nontraditional" headache treatments, including acupuncture, massage, herbs, and diets, of which there are varying degrees of effectiveness.
Biofeedback for Migraines and Headaches
Biofeedback is a technique that can help a headache sufferer learn stress-reduction skills by providing information (feedback) about muscle tension, skin temperature, brain waves, and other vital signs. Small metal sensors, called electrodes, are attached to the skin and measure the amount of muscle tension or the skin temperature. This information is displayed as numbers, electrical waves, or sounds on a screen. For example, a stress response reduces skin temperature because of constriction of blood vessels, while a relaxation response results in dilated blood vessels and warm skin.
The results of several studies show changes in the blood flow in the brain during migraine attacks and in the pain-free periods in between. Using biofeedback training, a person can influence the blood flow to the brain and better manage a headache.
Most studies on biofeedback indicate that it reduces the frequency and duration of headaches, both in children and adults. In general, the effects of biofeedback appear to be comparable to many drugs used for chronic headaches, and can be recommended as early treatment for recurrent migraines.