Dr. Peter McAllister, of New England Institute for Neurology & Headache, says he’s open to medication-free, alternative therapies for patients… if there’s science to show they may help.
He says one complementary alternative therapy in particular – biofeedback – is making a huge difference for patients like 16-year-old Lindsay Gartner whose chronic migraines went off the charts with the pressure of getting into college.
Dr. McAllister says studies show biofeedback helps prevent a migraine patient’s next attack or at least helps cut down on how long the pain lasts.
MUSCLE TENSION LIFTING… Probes are connected to the patient’s forehead to monitor her scalp muscle tension. She will look ahead to the computer monitor and learn to lower the number on the screen by relaxing her forehead. Dr. Randall Weeks, PhD, of NEINH, says chronic migraine patients get elevated levels of muscle tension because they’re bracing against oncoming pain. (demo, not actual patient)
A process whereby electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function is used to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function.
COLD HANDS… A finger sensor is used to track the patient’s temperature. Dr. Weeks says migraine patients tend to have extreme vascular reactions… resulting in cold hands, feet and nose. Through biofeedback the patient learns to increase their blood flow, warm their hands, and thereby calm the autonomic nervous system.
Dr. McAllister says biofeedback is a skill that Gartner can use throughout her life; she’s fortunate to learn it as a teen. Dr. McAllister says, “Being a junior in high school is tough enough. The stressors of getting good grades caused additional anxiety and stress that worsened her headaches and kept her from getting a solid night’s sleep.”
“So we tried a few medicines, but she was very sensitive to them and had side effects,” says Dr. McAllister. That’s when they turned to biofeedback. “She was slow to get the hang of it. But, after four or five sessions, her anxiety went down, her migraines decreased and her sleep improved.”
Dr. Randall Weeks, PhD, of NEINH, says, “The patient learns what their body feels like when the machine tells them their hand is warming and then I give them tools to take home and practice.” Once patients have mastered biofeedback and muscle memory takes over, Dr. Weeks recommends patients use the at-home stress thermometer on their finger to stay on track, especially before they go to bed at night. “It just helps them to have some objective data about what they’re doing, and it prepares their body to sleep better.”
Emmy-winning reporter Gillian Neff has been covering health topics for 16 years. She is currently a freelance reporter and anchor at News 12 Connecticut and also pursues her passion for medical news through Gillian Neff Health Reports’ blogs and videos.