Biofeedback

How does it work? Pick your theory


I’m working with a man who has neuropathic pain in his right (dominant) hand.  He developed his pain some 8 years ago after he caught it in a woodworking machine and basically mashed it, damaging most of the carpal tunnel area.  After numerous orthopaedic, and plastic surgical procedures, he’s now left with nasty scarring, and even nastier neuropathic pain with some central sensitisation elements.  While he has almost full range of movement in his wrist and fingers, he rarely uses his hand and instead, cradles it or leaves it sitting half-curled, palm up.

We’ve been working together for a month or so, along with physiotherapy and psychology, and my parts of this programme have been to help him develop a personalised model of the factors that contribute to his pain; help him develop some self regulatory skills particularly to downregulate his very sensitive sympathetic drive; and to start the process of him being mindful of his hand rather than ignoring it or focusing on it.

I’m using a combination of approaches – Socratic questioning and guided discovery to help him develop a better understanding of his pain – particularly focusing on helping him recognise that trying to control his pain through either avoiding the use of his hand, or using distraction is counter-productive.  When he avoids using his hand, he’s either limiting the activities he can get through during the day and gets bored, frustrated and is probably contributing to the pain because his neuromatrix isn’t receiving normal movement patterns.  When he uses distraction, he can almost completely ignore the pain while pushing himself to ‘do everything’ – but then he gets an overwhelming increase in pain when he stops, which is distressing.

We’ve spent quite a while discussing the nature of control – is it pain we’re trying to control? Is it his activities we’re controlling? Is it is thoughts and emotions that we’re controlling?  I’ve been using mindfulness and some of the concepts from ACT and suggesting that try as hard as we might, pain is not something to control, and neither are thoughts or emotions.  In fact it seems the harder we try to control any of these things, the more they dominate and control us!

As a result, much of what I’m working on is helping this guy to non-judgementally regard his body sensations as simply sensations, allowing his attention to go to his hand without trying to ignore it (you can’t!) or to over-attend to it, but simply to notice it.

Taking this a little further, we’ve been working on breathing and mindfully attending to breathing as one way of introducing self regulation. This involves gently guiding his attention to his breath, and just as gently, noticing when his attention drifts away and bringing it back to his breathing.  Not as easy as you’d think!

I’ve been using biofeedback as part of this process because this guy is a practical man.  He’s not one to just accept doing something without having some feedback about what is actually going on.  I’ve used skin conductance, surface EMG, heart rate, respiration rate and skin temperature to monitor his overall arousal level.  He’s aware now that he can influence usually unconscious processes just by breathing or even thinking differently!

Yesterday I took it a little further.  I asked him to look at his painful hand, and simply describe the sensations without judging them.  What this means is he told me about the tingly, burning sensation over his palm, the throbbing aching in his fingers, he noticed where the pain started and stopped on his hand and fingers, the sensation of heat where his fingers touched each other, the sensation of pressure on his forearm where it rested against the arm of the chair, the sensation where the fabric of his T-shirt touched his skin – and so on.

It was interesting for him to notice that the painful area isn’t as big as he’d imagined.  When he really started to notice the quality of his pain, it wasn’t nauseating or particularly intense, it varied in sensation.  What I noticed was that initially his readings on biofeedback jumped – but they gradually settled down as he looked at his hand and really noticed it.

We then did some deep relaxation, really a kind of hypnosis.  In this we used an imagery device I’d discussed with him before the session.  I guided him in to using his attention to become aware of his hand and in particular, its position in space and the sensations over his whole hand and forearm.  I then guided him through an imagery process where he imagined holding his hand in warm water, allowing his hand to ‘thaw’ and open.  We then spent some time imagining his hand feeling normal, moving normally and imagined opening and closing his hand to lift a cup, pour milk, and flex and extend his wrist.  Throughout I was monitoring his biofeedback readings, and using words like ‘relax’ and ‘warm’ and ‘comfortable’ whenever the readings suggested he was becoming ‘stressed’.

When we completed the session, he had achieved sustained attention to his hand for about 35 minutes, completed a guided imagery of his hand doing normal activities, and had remained calm throughout.  He reported some increased discomfort around his wrist particularly after imagining wrist extension and flexion, but what really excited me was that he’d been able to increase the skin temperature on the finger of his right hand.

So, lots of choices in terms of theory to explain what I’d been doing.

  1. Graded motor imagery and sustained attention gives the neuromatrix normalised input, while not activating what Lorimer Moseley and David Butler call ‘neurotags’ or emotionally-laden pathways in the brain.
  2. Graded exposure using visual imagery as described by Johan Vlaeyen and following the exposure paradigm used in phobia reduction.
  3. Using a behavioural model, biofeedback providing immediate feedback on progress and arousal levels, influencing both my behaviour (guided imagery) and the clients responses
  4. Hypnosis allowing the ‘judgemental’ aspects of the mind to be quietened, thus allowing the client to experience sensations without distress
  5. Mindfulness where sensations are experienced but judgements are stilled.

Take your pick!  I’m not entirely sure myself, but whatever the mechanism, I’ll be continuing with this approach to the point where this client can carry the same process out with eyes open, then when actually moving.  Oh, and at the same time, the rest of the team will be working (along with me) on helping him set and achieve goals, manage difficult emotions and maintain a regulated activity pattern, as well as work on his relationship, look to the future of work, and help him communicate effectively with his case manager.  This is why pain is often not the main focus in pain management!

Basic biofeedback in pain management


I’m no techno-whizz in biofeedback – you have to speak to one of my colleagues (she knows who she is!) to get the technical data on things like heart rate variability – but I do use several modalities reasonably often. So today I thought I’d discuss some of the ways I use biofeedback with the people I work with.

Biofeedback basically provides visual or auditory information about normally undetectable physiological processes. It ranges from temperature sensors through to skin conduction (galvanic skin response), and includes surface EMG, respiration, blood volume pulse and sometimes these are put together to provide feedback on heart rate variability. I’m not going into HRV yet, that’s for another day!

The most common sensors I use
everyday are GSR, which is a reasonably sensitive measure of general arousal level; respiration because it provides immediate feedback on the way the person is breathing and is helpful for developing diaphragmatic breathing; BVP because it responds quickly to respiration and can demonstrate to the person the effect of slowing their breathing down; and I often use surface EMG because it can provide immediate feedback on posture changes (more…)

Real-time neuroimagery – biofeedback on steroids


Biofeedback has been a wonderful tool for learning control of body functions that we usually can’t directly monitor.

Now here’s something that takes the concept of biofeedback just a wee bit further – not that we’ll get to use it in day-to-day pain management for a wee while!!

Psychology of Pain reports on the use of neuroimaging as a way for people with chronic pain to influence their own brain functioning, and in turn, change their experience of pain. What an awesome concept!

Take a look at the blog – and as soon as I hear more, I’ll be posting!

Biofeedback or – things that go ‘beep’!


Biofeedback is an approach to revealing the inner states of human functioning so that people can develop control. In pain management it can take many different forms from surface electro-myography (sEMG), skin conductance (SC), blood volume pulsimetry (BVP), respiration rate, and heart rate variability. It can even be as simple as readings on two scales (left foot, right foot); video recording; a mirror; taking your pulse; temperature or weight!

I use biofeedback pretty regularly – so here’s a very quick tour through the biofeedback uses (but wait! there will be more as time goes by…)