Biofeedback for Migraine

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 20, 2024
5 min read

The throbbing and pulsating headache you get when you have a migraine attack can disrupt your day-to-day life. There’s no cure for it. But biofeedback therapy has been found to be an effective treatment to reduce intense migraine attacks. According to the American Migraine Foundation, the technique can lower your headache frequency and severity by up to 45% to 60%.

Biofeedback (or biological feedback ) is a type of noninvasive mind-body therapy technique in which you’re hooked up to electrical sensors to monitor your body’s functions like heart rate, blood pressure, brain waves, breathing, skin sweat, and muscle tension. If you’re under stress, these functions may change.

Biofeedback devices may be hooked up to a wired monitor or come in the form of a wearable device. The connected electrodes collect information about your body’s unconscious or involuntary responses to stress and measure it. This feedback can then help determine reactions to consciously soothe your behaviors to help bring your body and mind back to a relaxed state. Besides migraine, biofeedback is used for other pain and stress-related conditions like ADHD, fibromyalgia, stroke, and high blood pressure.

For example, if you’re holding a lot of tension in your jaws, the biofeedback machine will let you know with a beeping sound or flashing light. But it will also notify you when you consciously release the tension. This form of therapy helps to build body awareness so that you can recognize it and bring the tension under control. This way, you can prevent, reduce, or stop a headache before it builds up.

Biofeedback is a skill that you can learn to use anywhere and everywhere over time without having to rely on machines. To recognize and control headache cues, it’s best to practice it in the presence of a licensed health professional like a therapist or psychiatrist who’s trained to use this therapy.

There are several types of biofeedback devices. To treat migraine, typically an electromyogram (EMG) biofeedback device is used to observe and monitor skeletal and muscle tension. The electrodes are usually used around three specific upper-body muscles that tend to tense up before you get a migraine attack.

This includes:

  • Frontalis. This muscle is on your forehead. When you frown or worry when you’re under stress or pressure, it tightens up.
  • Masseter. It’s by your jaw and tightens up when you clench it out of frustration, anger, or worry.
  • Trapezius. Located on your shoulders, it tightens up when you’re alarmed, anxious, or have other types of physical stressors like sitting or hunching for too long.

With EMG biofeedback therapy, three electrodes are attached to your body. Two are placed at a specific distance from each other on the chosen muscle, and the third electrode is placed on a neutral spot on your body to serve as a reference point to accurately measure responses to stress.

Over time, as you learn what triggers muscle tension and techniques to relax tensed muscles, it can help you reduce the frequency and intensity of your headaches.

Another type of biofeedback that’s used to manage migraine headaches is thermal or hand-warming therapy. Many people who have migraine attacks tend to have cool or clammy hands and feet. This is because when you’re under stress, the blood vessels underneath your skin contract, and this reduces the temperature.

Thermal biofeedback therapy can monitor your skin temperature and help you become aware of these temperature changes. This can help you deliberately change your emotional and physical response with appropriate relaxation techniques to control stress. When you’re relaxed, the blood vessels in your hands and feet expand, improve blood flow, and warm up.

According to experts, learning to manage normal temperature in your hands and feet can lower the intensity and frequency of migraine headache days over time.

Biofeedback therapy may not give immediate relief, but there are several benefits to using it:

  • It's a noninvasive treatment option.
  • It's safe and has no known side effects.
  • It might reduce or stop the need for medications.
  • It may be used as a complementary treatment, along with drugs, and improve results.
  • It’s safe for pregnant women.
  • It helps you feel more in control of your health.

Biofeedback is a safe treatment option with no harmful side effects. But the devices are not a cure-all for migraine attacks and may not be suitable for everyone. If you’re interested in biofeedback therapy, here are some things you can do to prepare for it.

Speak with your doctor. Talk with your primary care doctor or neurologist to see if biofeedback therapy is something you can benefit from in the long run. For some, biofeedback could help cut down on medications. In other cases, biofeedback therapy works best when it’s used along with migraine medications. This can improve your ability to manage symptoms and reduce headache frequency and severity.

Find a qualified biofeedback therapist. Your doctor could help point you to a qualified and licensed biofeedback practitioner. Certification and training requirements to become a biofeedback therapist may vary from state to state. They may also have a background in other medical fields such as psychology, nursing, or physical therapy.

Before signing up for therapy, screen biofeedback practitioners with questions like:

  • Do you have experience and knowledge providing feedback for migraine?
  • Can you provide a list of references?
  • How many sessions are required?
  • Do you accept medical insurance?

Consider the cost of biofeedback therapy. Biofeedback therapy can be pricey. A regular session usually lasts 30 to 60 minutes. But for it to be effective, you may need multiple sessions. The number of sessions required to see long-term results varies from person to person as it depends on the severity of your migraine attacks. Before you sign up, check if your medical insurance covers biofeedback therapy.

If biofeedback therapy proves to be successful for you, you can learn to use the techniques to control migraine symptoms. In time, you may not need to rely on devices to control your responses. It could also possibly lower the amount of medication you need. But don’t stop taking your medications before speaking with your doctor.