For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from tension headaches. As a student, they would come on fast and furious while preparing for an exam and later in life before a presentation at work. You could bet on a real “throbber” during life’s difficult times, like transitions, break-ups or when my father became ill. As if these already stress inducing events weren’t bad enough without the pain associated with a tension headache. But this is the nature of the ailment, it gets you when you’re most vulnerable.
Now I realize all the ibuprofen I took may have done more harm than good given my “weak” stomach. Although it has since been determined that my nerves were also a big factor in my stomach discomfort, it was seeking reprieve from the headaches that brought me to biofeedback therapy. Ironically, the biofeedback I learned for my headaches has also helped with my stomach woes.
After years of riding the storms, I finally decided the pain was too much to endure. As I got older the headaches became longer lived, more painful and more frequent. I even began to spend time worrying when the throbbing pain would turn my world upside down which only fueled the problem. After many unsuccessful attempts with pain killers and anti-inflammatory medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, I decided it was time to pursue a natural remedy. I heard Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was effective in reducing anxiety and managing pain. I knew myself well enough to say confidently that the headaches were the worst when my stress levels were at their highest.
My therapist suggested a combination of CBT and biofeedback as the best treatment plan for my condition. He explained to me that biofeedback combats stress by teaching relaxation techniques. It is possible to consciously manipulate breathing, heart rate and other usually involuntary functions to override your body’s response to stressful situations. At first I was skeptical. I wanted to believe but the concept was difficult to grasp after years of suffering. How could this finally relieve my pain?
I found out that biofeedback works by attaching sensors to the body to measure key bodily functions including breathing, muscle tension, heart-rate, blood pressure, peripheral skin temperature and EEG brain waves. I was going to learn to gain control over the muscle tension that was causing the headaches.
Specifically, for tension headaches like mine, biofeedback can be extremely effective, as the headaches are a result of keeping muscles in the head area in a tense state, especially in situations of high stress. I was totally unaware of this response but it made sense when I could view my muscles contracting on the computer monitor. Being able to visualize what was going on took away some of my doubt. It made sense to me that tense muscles could contribute to a tension headache. This was the point I agreed to start my journey in biofeedback.
In preparation, several sensors were attached to my forehead, so that tension in the muscles of my head, jaw and neck could be recorded through the electrodes. This muscular tension was then converted into a tone and any increase in the muscular tension resulted in a corresponding increase in the tone. Consequently, as the tension went up, the tone got louder, and as the tension went down the tone became softer. This made it so I could understand the variations in muscle tension.
Then my doctor instructed me to reduce the tone in any way possible, which would correspond to a reduction in the tension in this area. Initially this seemed like an impossible feat, outside of my realm of comprehension, but with encouragement and by a process of trial and error, I learned to relax my jaw, forehead, and neck, which reduced the tone and in turn reduced my tension headaches. After practicing with the biofeedback system for about a half a dozen sessions, I was slowly weaned away from the machine. After several more sessions I learned to respond to my internal signals of relaxation rather than relying on the external signals from the machine.
Outside of the office, I became aware of facial tension in my everyday life which allowed me to relax in previously tension-producing situations. Although I am not 100% free from tension headaches, they are far more infrequent and I have learned to recognize when they are coming. This allows me to practice the exercises I learned on the biofeedback machine at the onset of a headache.
I believe what I gained during biofeedback therapy 3 years ago will be a permanent part of my psychological make-up. I am now able to face stressful situations without the debilitating fear and dread that controlled my existence for so much of my life. I still go back to my therapist periodically to brush up on relaxation skills but for the most part I can say that I have been cured.
Jennifer Pollack, Senior Editor has been writing for Behavioral Associates for more than 10 years.
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