Biofeedback can calm children's headaches

Biofeedback can calm children's headaches

Teaching children relaxation skills may help them reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. In a recent study at Cincinnati Children's' Hospital Medical Center, 10 girls and 10 boys with a history of migraine headache were given a single hour-long biofeedback-assisted relaxation training (BART); the results were encouraging and suggest that BART, combined with standard medication, can be an important tool in helping children deal with migraine.

By allowing us to actually see the results of our efforts, biofeedback can help us learn to control bodily processes that we don't normally think of ourselves as controlling, such as heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature. All of these are associated with how relaxed or tense we are. We all know that when we're tense, for example, our heart and breathing rates accelerate. Our feet and hands become cold when we are nervous or tense. It may come as a surprise to learn that we can influence these bodily processes and, in so doing, reduce tension and bring on a state of relaxation. Because we are not accustomed to controlling such bodily processes, it is a skill we must learn and some people learn these skills more easily than others. Biofeedback is a tool that can help in this learning process. It uses instruments to monitor things like heart rate or skin temperature and provides a visual representation (such as a meter or a graph) so that the individual can see the results of his or her efforts. For example, if a person is trying to reduce heart rate, an electrocardiograph can show the effectiveness of such efforts. Or, a simple meter that registers the temperature of the fingers can provide feedback for those attempting to raise peripheral body temperature (PBT).

In the Cincinnati study, children with a history of migraine received a single training session in relaxation techniques. These included deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery. A biofeedback device measuring PBT was used as an aid to learning. For the first two weeks after the training, the children were encouraged to practice these skills using an audio tape three or more times a week and at any time that they felt a headache coming on. Thereafter, they were instructed to practice on their own. Researchers measured the children's PBT prior to the training, during the training, and again at a follow-up visit, two to five months later. They assessed children's perception of their headaches and their quality of life. They also asked children to report on school absences due to migraine.

The results were encouraging: Children were able to significantly increase PBT and this was directly related to a decrease in headache frequency. From training to the follow-up visit, headache frequency decreased from 12.9 to 9.7 days/month, and headache duration went down from 6.9 to 5.2 hours. At the end of the study, 85 percent of parents reported that their children were functioning "better" as a result of the training. And the number of children who reported missing school as a result of migraine went from seven at the outset of the study to just two after 5 months.


Powers SW, Mitchell MJ, Byars KC, Bentti Al, LeCates SL, Hershey AD. A pilot study of one-session biofeedback training in pediatric headache. Neurology. 2001;56(1):133.

Review Date: January 2001
Reviewed By: Integrative Medicine editorial

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

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