Because of the number of possible causes of acute and chronic leg pain, your specific treatment plan will vary. Patients who rely on medications are often frustrated by the side effects. Physical therapy may also have limitations for leg pain relief. A possible alternative treatment for chronic leg pain, however, may be biofeedback training.
What is biofeedback training?
Biofeedback is a noninvasive treatment with few risks where a patient will learn to control involuntary reactions to create more desirable outcomes. Patients will work with a specialist to monitor their body’s natural reaction to painful stimuli and create methods to literally change the way their body processes these sensations in order to turn them into less uncomfortable situations. Patients are connected to a variety of specialized machines that monitor the body’s voluntary responses to stimuli. The patient is then led through a series of physiological and psychological biofeedback training corrections that change the way their body reacts to pain or stress.
When an individual experiences negative stimuli, their body responds in kind often in the form of pain. However, if pain becomes chronic, like some forms of leg pain can, this may create a biofeedback loop that perpetuates the sensation of pain. Biofeedback training works with the body’s natural responses to eliminate this negative biofeedback loop and replace it with more positive sensations.
How does biofeedback training work for chronic leg pain?
For the process of biofeedback training, patients are connected to specialized tools that measure their heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, or brain wave activity. This allows the specialist to view the internal processes in real time on a computer screen. The patient will also have access to this information and will use the visual cues to change their pattern of behavior.
When utilizing biofeedback training, a patient may be asked to visualize their pain as a ball of red light. As they are taken through the process, they are asked to view pain relief as a ball of blue light. They may be asked to absorb the red light into the blue light until only blue remains. This type of powerful visualization can provide long-term positive effects for patients dealing with chronic pain.
Biofeedback training utilizes your body’s natural reactions to change the way you interpret pain. It can provide non-invasive relief in conjunction with relaxation and meditation practices to maintain calm and not allow painful stimuli to negatively affect your overall well-being.
Because biofeedback training uses your body’s natural responses, there are no perceived side effects or risks associated with the treatment. Biofeedback training can be used for a number of pain conditions in the legs and throughout the body including migraine pain, asthma, and anxiety disorders.
Leg pain can originate from a variety of causes. Acute leg pain is usually the result of an injury, such as a sports or car accident, and will typically go away with home care and medications. However, any pain lasting more than 3 months is considered chronic and may require a much different approach to treatment.
Biofeedback training can be a suitable treatment for some patients suffering from chronic leg pain. This may include phantom limb syndrome and various types of knee pain. Let’s take a look at each of these.
Treating phantom limb syndrome with biofeedback training
Phantom limb syndrome is a largely unexplained condition where patients who have lost a limb due to an accident or amputation still feel a painful sensation emanating from where that limb had been. Doctors do not completely understand how phantom limb syndrome affects patients, but the resulting pain is very real.
Since the cause of this condition is still largely misunderstood, doctors have attempted a number of treatments to stop or alleviate the chronic pain associated with phantom limb syndrome. Other treatment methods include TENS units, intrathecal pump implants, and spinal cord stimulation. As a last resort, some specialists will prescribe opioid medications to alleviate the pain but this is not recommended in most cases. Biofeedback training, instead, is a great low risk method of retraining the body to deal with the painful stimuli because it works with the body’s own natural responses to stimuli to retrain the brain.
A study conducted in 2005 showed positive results of biofeedback training in patients with phantom limb syndrome. As the study noted:
“Pain was assessed daily using the visual analog scale (VAS), the sum of the sensory descriptors, and the sum of the affective descriptors of the McGill short form. Interrupted time-series analytical models were created for each of the participants, allowing biofeedback sessions to be modeled as discrete interventions. Analyses of the VAS revealed that a 20% pain reduction was seen in five of the nine patients in the weeks after session 4, and that at least a 30% pain reduction (range: 25-66%) was seen in six of the seven patients in the weeks following session 6. Sensory descriptors of pain decreased more than the affective pain descriptors.”
Treating knee pain with biofeedback training
Another common chronic leg pain issue that has been difficult to treat for a variety of reasons is knee pain. Pain occurring in the knee may be caused by conditions such as osteoarthritis, an inflammatory disease that affects the cushioning cartilage in joints and can restrict movement. Osteoarthritis is often associated with the body’s natural aging process, but this isn’t always the case. The tissues in the knee can become damaged over time due to the normal wear and tear stresses on the body from the way we walk to any additional weight we may carry.
A study in 2011 demonstrated positive results for biofeedback training for individuals suffering from pain related to arthritis in their knees. This study was intended to determine if biofeedback training was useful for the rehabilitation of osteoarthritis of the knee. Researchers worked with 40 patients between the ages of 45 and 70 who were diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis. Both groups participated in a knee strengthening exercise program, but half of the group was also trained in biofeedback techniques for 3 weeks. At the end of the study, their improvement was evaluated according to the Western Ontario McMaster Osteoarthritis index (WOMAC) as well as the patients’ overall quality of life. Researchers noted that:
“Pain, WOMAC scores and muscle strength improved in both groups but there was no statistically significant differences between two groups (p > 0.05). In both groups physical mobility, pain scores of NHP improved significantly (p < 0.001) while in EMG-biofeedback group energy and sleep scores also improved after treatment (p < 0.05). As reported in the literature, in our study, strengthening exercises improved pain, function, muscle strength and quality of life in patients with knee osteoarthritis.”
Have you used biofeedback training to treat your chronic leg pain?
Image by Nicki Varkevisser via Flickr