Neurobiofeedback: The Latest Treatment for Migraines

Clare Smiga

Headaches are among the most common health complaints today. According to the National Headache Foundation in Chicago, 45 million Americans suffer from recurring headaches—16 to 18 million of which are migraines (1). Migraines are vascular headaches because they involve the swelling of the brain’s blood vessels (2). The occurrence of migraine headaches, contrary to popular belief, is a disease. If you suffer from migraines you might be used to people comparing your migraine to a headache or trying to blame these “headaches” on you and your lifestyle. However, migraines are caused by the expansion of blood vessels whereas regular headaches area caused by the constriction of blood vessels. Although certain things such as harsh lighting, movement, or chocolate may trigger a migraine, the actual cause of this vessel swelling is unknown and may vary from person to person. Currently, there is no cure for migraine (3).

One theory as to the cause of migraines lies in excitement of the nervous system caused by stress, anxiety, or some unknown (4). A more recent form of treatment known as neurobiofeedback actually works by allowing patients to train their brains to function at a more relaxed mental state. The success of this treatment may indicate that increased neuron activity is one of the more common causes of migraines. Neurobiofeedback has been identified as successful for migraines precipitated by PMS, food allergies, or stress. It is not clear exactly how food allergies are related to increased nerve activity. Stress, however, regardless of the type, seems to be strongly correlated with migraines as it will determine the severity of the headache. Neurobiofeedback goes to the root of this problem and, as a result, is one of the more preferred methods of treatment (5).

Biofeedback, in general, is a technique in which the body’s responses to specific stimuli are measured in order to give patients knowledge about how they physically react to various events. In the case of headaches, patients can condition their mind or body to react differently to pre-headache symptoms and prevent a headache from occurring (1). Neurobio or electroencephalogram (EEG) feedback, specifically, measures brain wave activity and feeds back to a patient their own brain wave patterns so that they can modify these patterns through game-like computer simulations (6).

Why does this work? Brain waves are recordings of electrical changes in the brain. They originate from the cerebral cortex and are detected in the extracellular fluid of the brain in response to changes in potential among large groups of neurons. These changes are directly related to the degree of neuron activity, which are translated into different waves. Alpha and theta waves occur during more relaxed, meditative states. Beta waves dominate during more active, stressful mental states (7). Previous studies have shown that migraines may result when neurons in the brain’s cortex become overexcited (8). This would suggest the domination of beta waves. Therefore, neurobiofeedback enables migraine sufferers to counteract these waves and teach their brain to function at more relaxed wavelengths. According to one neurobiofeedback specialist, each person has its own psychopysiological stress profile showing how much of her sympathetic and how much of her parasympathetic nervous system she uses. Some people, even when they are idle or doing next to nothing, have their sympathetic system activated all of the time. This is the active, energy-expending branch of the nervous system, as opposed to the parasympathetic, which is the more relaxed, recovery, energy-storing system (6). Therefore, it is possible that migraine victims have their sympathetic nervous system “on” more than others and this could be what leads to an increase in beta waves observed. However, this would require further research. Furthermore, does nerve excitement lead to swelling of the blood vessels, as seen in victims of migraine? Continued research would be needed to show the correlation between these two aspects of migraines. Finally, there is still some question as to whether those things that trigger migraines—bright lights, harsh sounds, lack of sleep—increase neuron activity.

What is clear, however, is that neurobiofeedback has been successful in treating migraines for many people (9). Many sites and articles show success with this treatment, yet it is never 100%. Therefore, although the symptoms may be the same, there is something else involved in the disease that is causing the severe headaches. It is possible that their migraines are caused by other proposed theories including instability of the vascular system, magnesium deficiency, estrogen level fluctuations, and blood platelet disorder (based on the notion that the platelets of migraine sufferers aggregate more readily than normal platelets in response to certain neurotransmitters). Hopefully, continued understanding of this disease will help those who hope to treat it provide further relief for those who suffer from it from the great variety of factors that seem to cause migraines.

References

1. Howe, Maggy. “Headaches.” Country Living. March 1996, 82- 84.

2. Nervous System Disorders

3. Migraines: Myth and Reality.

4. Causes of Migraine

5. Michigan Institute for Neurobiofeedback.

6. Biofeedback/Neurobiofeedback Therapy.

7. Brain Waves

8. Ferrari, Michel D. “Migraine.” The Lancet. April 1998, 1043-1051.

9. EEG Spectrum International


Sierra EEG
Neurofeedback Therapy
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Grass Valley, CA  95949
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