Biofeedback for Treatment of Migraines and Stress

Stressed woman with hand to foreheadMigraines are a type of serious headache disorder that affects women twice as often as men. Migraine headaches are characterized by pain that is typically on one side of the head and accompanied by nausea and/or vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light and sound. In about a third of people, migraines are preceded by an “aura.” An aura is an abnormal sensory experience that can present as flashing lights, numbness or tingling in the face or extremities, a disturbed sense of smell, or having difficulty speaking. Some people with migraines describe having a “funny feeling” that signals their impending onset.

The Circular Relationship Between Migraines and Stress
Although the cause of migraines is not precisely known at present, this medical condition is believed to stem from inflammation or pressure on blood vessels and nerves innervating the face. Migraines can also be triggered by a variety of factors, including changes in the weather, diet, hormonal fluctuations, insufficient sleep, and stress or anxiety. Of course, as with any chronic pain condition, people who suffer from migraines often report increased stress and anxiety, as well as corresponding difficulty in sleeping, as a result of the condition.

Biofeedback as a Complementary/Alternative Medicine Tool
Biofeedback is a complementary/alternative medicine treatment that has been used successfully with a variety of conditions. These include but are not limited to headaches and other types of chronic pain conditions, as well as anxiety, Raynaud’s disease, and high blood pressure, to name a few. Biofeedback is considered very safe and involves having painless sensors attached to the face or body in order for a computer to provide information about bodily states, such as peripheral skin temperature, the degree of tension in the muscles, and heart rate/relative blood flow. The computer then gives feedback about whether or not the person is in a desirable range. This approach has a solid body of research behind it for the treatment of migraines and the stress that often accompanies them.

Because the goal of biofeedback typically involves decreasing tension and increasing feelings of calm, the technique is often combined with relaxation training including slow, deep breathing, guided imagery or hypnosis, or elements of cognitive behavioral therapy. When a person is able to use these approaches to reduce stress or pain, the feedback from the computer, which is fairly immediate, signals “success” to the person. Feedback is typically visual, such as seeing a change in on-screen animation or other graphics, and/or auditory, as indicated by hearing a reward tone, soothing music, or nature sounds. This type of response helps the person to recognize when they have entered a more desirable state and trains them to do so more easily and rapidly over time.

For example, when a person is in pain or under stress, their temperature decreases due to constriction of blood vessels. Therefore, a temperature sensor placed on the finger of a person who is stressed may read in the 70-something or 80-something degree range (which is low), but will increase accordingly as they relax, ideally into the 90+ degree range. Sensors evaluating muscle tension (known as electromyography [EMG]) can reveal clenching or contractions that one may not be conscious of. Practice increases awareness of the above and conditions the muscles to remain more relaxed. Similarly, a heart rate elevated by stress can be lowered to a healthy range with the aid of feedback from a sensor (blood volume pulse [BVP]) that provides information about relative cardiovascular fitness.

Biofeedback is typically done in the office of a provider who is either certified in biofeedback or a licensed mental health professional trained in this modality. Clients are instructed to engage in at-home relaxation practice between sessions in order to enhance and maintain treatment gains. Although these are not required for home practice, there are a variety of portable biofeedback devices on the market for those who find these helpful.

In summary, biofeedback can be a useful tool for those suffering from migraines and stress, as well as other issues not addressed here. For more information about migraines or biofeedback, please consult the links below.


To find a biofeedback provider near you:
Biofeedback Certification International Alliance,

To view a YouTube video showing an at-home temperature biofeedback device:

Related articles:
Complementary & Alternative Medicine and Psychotherapy: Hypnosis in the Management of Chronic Pain
Women and Chronic Pain: Getting the Help You Need
Yoga for Balancing Mind and Body

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • hotlanta


    March 14th, 2012 at 5:50 PM

    Thank you so much for featring this story because I am a migraine sufferer and I can’t tell you how many days of my life I sometimes feel like I have lost due to the down time associated with them. I am going to talk to my neurologist at my next appointment to see if he thinks that this could benefit me.



    March 15th, 2012 at 12:26 AM

    I’ve seen a friend suffer from migraine for a long time now. About stress-is it a cause only? Could it also not be a result of this migraine problem? And with regard to the alternative method described here, it only measures and informs us and doesn’t really do anything to suppress the I reading it right?

  • morgan key

    morgan key

    March 15th, 2012 at 2:56 PM

    How would I know if the information that someone gave me as biofeedback was legit or just a bunch of baloney? Seems so subjective that there is not necessarily a right or wrong.

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    March 16th, 2012 at 3:25 PM

    Hello all and thanks for your comments. @hotlanta: it’s a great idea to mention this to your neurologist, who is probably familiar with biofeedback and may be able to recommend a specific provider for you. Although it will probably take several sessions before you see some benefit, the skills you learn with regard to “self-regulation” can be useful with a variety of situations and stressors, not just with regard to migraines.

    @Nathan: stress is considered a potential “trigger” (rather than a cause) for migraine, in that it can bring on a migraine, and it can also make it more difficult to cope with one in people who get migraines to begin with (everyone has stress sometimes but not everyone has ever had a migraine). But you are right – having migraines or other types of chronic pain conditions can cause considerable stress. The feedback from biofeedback can help us to become more aware of when we are having a stress-related response (such as elevated heart rate, tense muscles, a drop in the temperature of our extremities) and also gain more control over these responses. What is so interesting about this approach is that it enables people to “control” bodily functions that previously were thought to be beyond our ability to do so consciously. And feel better as a result.

    @Morgan: That’s a great question – the link to the biofeedback certification international alliance above can help you find a certified provider near you. Anyone who is certified would have to have met fairly rigorous criteria indicating competence in biofeedback. Biofeedback may also be provided by licensed mental health providers who have trained in this treatment without necessarily having been certified. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to ask a potential provider what their training is. You may also wish to contact a headache center or pain management clinic at an academic medical center near you to see if they offer this treatment.

    I hope this is helpful.

    You can also follow me on Twitter for more postings related to mental and physical health: @DrTraciStein

  • Arthur Garcia

    Arthur Garcia

    June 5th, 2012 at 12:46 AM

    Thank you so much for sharing this article. Some people always questioning me how they can relief from Migraine pain without pills or any medication treatment. Now m refer this blog link to those peoples. Thanks again. – Arthritis Miami

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