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Because childhood should be simple ...

Biofeedback technology, techniques help patients with pain

Biofeedback Kathy Harris, a mother of three, felt faint. She cut her foot so deep she could see bone and suffered from excruciating pain. She needed to go to the emergency room but wasn't sure she could make it there without passing out. Fortunately, she lived with an expert in the house who could help her manage the agony. He also happened to be her 11-year old son, Zachary.

After all, Zachary utilized the very techniques, called biofeedback, to help with his pain. He had been using breathing methods to cope with the injuries he suffered when he was attacked by a class-room bully at school three years prior.

The assault left Zachary with damaged ligaments in his jaw and nerve injury in his neck.

For three years, Zachary suffered from his jaw locking – sometimes with his mouth open, other times closed. He visited with specialists to help with his pain, but could not find relief.

Finally after seeing five different specialists, he found the answer at Cook Children's.

Brian Ryals, M.D., a neurologist at Cook Children's, suggested biofeedback for Zachary and sessions with specialist Nanny Christie, Ph.D., at the Medical Center.

"Doctors have medication and that can be helpful," Dr. Ryals said. "We saw a few years ago that we needed more than to just give pills when a child has a headache or suffering from pain. One of the first things we looked at was lifestyle management.

The mind can be a powerful instrument. Biofeedback teaches patients better awareness and control over their mind and body. Christie uses special monitoring equipment that displays physical changes taking place. This enables the person to gain control over changing their own mind and body.  It is especially helpful in teaching relaxation training. Her patients are taught how to relax by reducing their muscle tension, using calm and slow breathing, lowering heart rate and quieting their minds to lower their pain.  

The patients also participate in activities by playing videogames or watching movies. As they control their stress, the game or movie continues to play. If they can’t control their stress, the activity stops.

Patients ranging from ages 7 to 17 receive biofeedback treatment, not just for pain from physical injuries. The majority of the 20 patients seen weekly are considered over achievers who receive good grades in school and perform in many extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, this often lends itself to stress and chronic pain.

“Even though Nanny is a biofeedback therapist, she's very important beyond biofeedback," Dr. Ryals said. “She works with us a lot on the child's lifestyle management. We sometimes find a child is in 10 different after-school activities, in all honor classes and only sleeping four hours a night. If you are so busy you can only sleep four hours a day, there may be a reason you are getting headaches."

State-of-the-art technology is used to measure the stress and anxiety that is reflected in the person’s physiological states. The patient can watch a computer screen to see their stress level rise and see the connection of their anxiety and their headaches.

Patients are taught specific relaxation methods and how to use their minds to change or alter their perception of the pain.

"People learn to get control over their physiology," Christie said. "Kids come in and they don't feel control of their pain at all. We are giving that control back to them."

Biofeedback patients receive an integrated approach at Cook Children's. They are first diagnosed by a Cook Children's neurologist. Children who participate in biofeedback see a neurologist at the end of each of their visits for a brief exam and medication consult.

Reluctantly, the Harris family took Dr. Ryals' advice.

"I didn't know biofeedback existed," Kathy Harris said. "We put it off. We felt like we had to worry about helping him with his injury. We didn't feel like we had time for biofeedback."

Zachary said he was sceptical of biofeedback. He already had seen multiple specialists and was convinced nothing could work for him or ease his pain.

But during the first visit, Zachary learned to relax. He watched how his breathing synced up with his anxiety. Today he is a prized pupil of how biofeedback can make a difference in a child’s life.

“I credit 100 percent of my recovery to biofeedback," Zachary said. “I use what I learned in biofeedback all the time now. It helps before a test. It helps with anything emotional or physical. I use it for almost anything."

By the second week, Zachary's jaw had stopped locking. Eight sessions later, he learned to cope with not only the pain suffered from the attack, but also the stress of school and home. And things like his mother cutting her foot and going to the emergency room.

"Zach went with me to the emergency room," Harris said. "Zach said, 'Ok mom look at me, breathe in three times, and then breathe out five.’ He talked me through it. He really helped me and it was because of the techniques he learned by using biofeedback."

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