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Controlling pain with biofeedback: Josephine's story

  • Despite having arthritis and fibromyalgia, Josephine Vaughn seemed to be in good shape. An avid gardener and artist, she spent her spare time remodeling her duplex.

    Then she had "a triple whammy": a lengthy hospitalization, many surgeries, and an accident all within a year.

    Chronic pain, exhaustion and depression followed.

    "I went from re-doing my duplex to barely being able to walk," says Vaughn.

    She disliked taking pain medications and worried about their side effects. So Vaughn decided to try biofeedback therapy with Mark Roa, psychologist and certified biofeedback therapist at Allina Health Mental Health - Abbott Northwestern Clinic.

    "Biofeedback is a great tool for helping people develop coping strategies," says Roa. "They begin to see that they can have some control over their body's response to pain, stress or injury."

    What's biofeedback?

    Biofeedback therapy involves an average of five one-hour sessions that occur weekly or every other week.

    • The patient learns posture techniques and breathing, stretching and meditation exercises.
    • As the patient does the exercises, sensors measure changes in muscle tension, skin temperature, heart rate and other biological reactions that can show pain or stress.
    • The results are displayed on a computer monitor. This gives the patient immediate feedback on his or her ability to relax and calm the body.

    When patients first come to him, Psychologist Mark Roa interviews them to make sure that biofeedback will work well with medical treatments they're undergoing.

    As the therapy progresses, Roa encourages his patients to add what they've learned into daily activities.

    "Every hour or so they should take a minute to use a brief relaxation skill learned in biofeedback," he says. "Every day they should spend 20 minutes or so doing the exercises they've learned - focused breathing, gentle stretching and mindfulness meditation."

    Who does biofeedback help?

    Biofeedback may help people with:

    • brain injury
    • chronic pain in the back, face, joints, neck, shoulder and other areas
    • fibromyalgia
    • headaches or other kinds of pain related to the nervous system
    • TMJ syndrome
    • repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome
    • sleep problems.

    Biofeedback helped Josephine Vaughn again enjoy activities like gardening "without having to take a handful of pain pills."

    She adds, "Biofeedback is like the icing on the cake. It helped me put everything together."