Pain and Willpower: Biofeedback

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A new way to deal with pain is biofeedback, using willpower to influence bodily signals. The research concerning this phenomenon is still very new and needs more work, but this article details what is already done and what the potential could be.

More than Pills

Pills are not the only way to deal with pain. Brain activity can be influenced in other ways as well. In mapping the pain matrix, researchers bumped into other promising alternatives to deal with pain, such as biofeedback. In a biofeedback treatment, patients are shown measurements of their body signals, such as brain activity or heart rate, on a computer screen. Subsequently, they are ‘trained’ to try and influence the value of these signals.

This technique, however, has a somewhat doubtful reputation and solid proof for its effectiveness is not that easy to find.

Biofeedback and Pain

Could this technique potentially be helpful in dealing with pain? Recent research has been trying to answer this question. To test this, a video screen, showing a burning flame, was attached to the inside of an MRI scanner.

During some experiments, this flame increased or decreased in size in correspondence with the activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, a brain area that is thought to play an important role in the conscious perception of pain. During other experiments, the test subjects received fake feedback.

All test subjects in the MRI scanner were asked to try and do a conscious effort to reduce the size of the flame.

Seeing Pain

The results of the test showed that the test subjects who were watching and trying to influence actual brain activity, were more able to suppress their subjective feelings of pain than those who were tricked with fake feedback. The technique appears to work in both patient suffering from a condition with chronic pain and healthy volunteers who were subjected to mild pain stimuli.

It seems that being able to ‘see’ pain can be a powerful tool to get a grip on it. It is hoped that after long practice, people will be able to somewhat control their subjective feelings of pain without the help of visualization tools, but by doing a conscious effort to control the pain, based on what they have learned with the aid of the visualization.

References

  • deCharms, R.C.; Maeda, F.; Glover, G.H.; Ludlow, D.; Pauly, J.M.; Soneji, D.; Gabrieli, J.D.E. & Mackey, S.C. (2005). Control over brain activation and pain learned by using real-time functional MRI. PNAS. 102(51), pp. 18626 – 18631.
  • Neblett, R.; Mayer, T.G.; Brede, E.M.N.; Gatchel, R.J. (2010). Correcting Abnormal Flexion-relaxation in Chronic Lumbar Pain: Responsiveness to a New Biofeedback Training Protocol. Clinical Journal of Pain. 26(5), pp. 403 – 409.

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