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Biofeedback Shows Promise for Children with Headache

Children who frequently suffer from headache may benefit from biofeedback therapy, which a recent study showed decreased pain and headache frequency.

Biofeedback is a technique in which people attempt to control some bodily processes that normally occur involuntarily, such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and skin temperature.  For this study, researchers evaluated 132 youth, ages 8 to 18, who attended two or more biofeedback sessions between 2004 and 2008; the median number of sessions was seven. Between the first and last visit, headache frequency dropped from 3.5 to 2 headache days per month, and the median severity of pain decreased from 6.5 to 5 on a scale of 1 to 10.

In all, 58% of the participants responded positively to the therapy, according to lead researcher Dr. Heidi K. Blume of the University of Washington, Seattle Children’s Hospital. A positive response was a decrease by more than 50% in the number of headache days or hours per week or a decrease in headache severity of three or more points.

Among children with chronic headache—headache that occurs 15 or more days per month for more than three months—48% benefited, as did 73% of participants with episodic headache.

“In the world of chronic headache, 48% is actually pretty good,” Dr. Blume was quoted in Reuters Health.

Dr. Blume and her colleagues noted that medications played a role in biofeedback’s efficacy. One in five participants was taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Those individuals prescribed the SSRIs were five times as likely to benefit from biofeedback as those who were not taking the medications. Conversely, those taking preventative headache medications were 65% less likely to benefit from biofeedback.

Dr. Arthur Elkind, the president of the NHF board, noted that for several years it has been known that biofeedback is effective in children and adolescents and has few contraindications and adverse effects. Patients can learn the exercises and practice them without continued costs, and younger headache patients seem to pick up the exercises rapidly. Clinicians have been using this treatment modality in children for several decades with success. In fact, NHF’s co-founder and executive chairman Seymour Diamond, MD, and Mary Franklin, the NHF director of operations, collaborated and published their findings about biofeedback in children in 1975.

Further study in this field is warranted, Dr. Blume said, including the evaluation of a relationship between SSRIs and biofeedback and comparing biofeedback and other treatments for pediatric headache.

The study appeared in July in the journal Headache.

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