Is biofeedback a joke?
September 15, 2010 5:41 PM   Subscribe

My 2 1/2 year old gets migraines. The only cause we can discern is chocolate but have tried other elimination diets to no avail. Someone suggested biofeedback (a machine that can tell you what your body needs to heal) - and this will help determine the cause(s). I am very skeptical. Would you give it a try? The test is ~$150.
posted by turtlefu to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Cheese was one of my triggers.

I am dubious about the biofeedback machine.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:45 PM on September 15, 2010

Ask your neurologist.
posted by availablelight at 5:46 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Unless that "someone" is a physician recommending a course of treatment, don't bother. Casual medical advice from non-doctors is worth what you paid for it. Have you spoken to her pediatrician about the migraines? Start there, and if that doesn't answer your questions seek a second opinion from another pediatrician.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:48 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

IMO fatherly opinion, this would be near-useless for a 2 1/2 year old. They just don't have the attention span or maturity to use this effectively as anything other than a coping mechanism, which you can teach do without dropping dollars on a high-priced machine or sessions with a possibly quacky "biofeedback specialist."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:49 PM on September 15, 2010

The biofeedback machine is undoubtedly a scam.
posted by Justinian at 5:52 PM on September 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

IANAD. Biofeedback is using machines to become aware of certain physiological functions and teaching yourself how to control them. One of the easier ones from my experience is heart rate where you are hooked to an EKG or pulse oximeter and relax to lower your heart rate. If you get hooked up to a machine, you can definitely teach yourself to lower your heart rate using your mind (a mind is a powerful thing).
Can Biofeedback work for migraines? Maybe. Will your 2.5 year old child have the focus or concentration to make it work? I'd rather spend my first $150 visiting a pediatrician than trusting biofeedback.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 5:52 PM on September 15, 2010

Response by poster: I guess I should clarify (and as a write this I know it seems like more quackery) but the biofeedback is "spectravision" and it supposedly can recommend homeopathic treatments... I guess I would like a solution for her pain.
posted by turtlefu at 6:07 PM on September 15, 2010

homeopathic treatments

Yeah, your instincts are spot-on. Homeopathy is quackery. Actual biofeedback machines don't recommend treatments, as far as I know; they are a form of treatment that, as Mister Fabulous explained, allows the user to monitor and learn how to control physiological functions. As others have already said, even real biofeedback probably wouldn't be of much use to a 2 1/2-year-old, and the machine that's being suggested to you definitely isn't useful.
posted by limeonaire at 6:16 PM on September 15, 2010 [12 favorites]

You should read up on homeopathic treatments - most people (and I agree) that they are a scam and only work using the placebo effect.

As a kid I had migraines and the things that caused them were sunlight (so wearing sunglasses and hats and staying out of bright sunlight were very helpful), orange juice (which I stopped drinking), and extreme stress (which only ended when on a different continent from my parents). Some of the preventable stress was from my parents punishing accidents brutally so we were so awfully careful when doing anything and worried about dropping things and bumping things over - I think someone told them to do it to raise considerate careful kids and they totally screwed it up. Just an example of odd things kids can find extremely stressful - you should try look at things from your kids point of view to see if there is anything that might be stressful.
posted by meepmeow at 6:16 PM on September 15, 2010

When I was a teen I had bad migraines (actually, I still do). I did try biofeedback - it is what Mister Fabulous describes above. I was hooked up using wires, my heart rate, breathing, brain waves were monitored. I was then challenged to try to lower my heart rate and breathing by thinking about it. I also recalled having my temperature being monitored and challenged to raise the temperature in my finger.

I have never heard of biofeedback recommending homeopathic treatments. It was merely a method of controlling some bodily functions - which hopefully would have led to getting a grip on my migraines. It didn't work.

See a neurologist.

There have been recent studies that make a link to a small heart defect to migraines. The heart defect being called PFO. Not saying that applies in your case, but it's something to ask the neurologist about.

Also, a friend of mine knows of a small boy who was having terrible migraines and the doctor determined it to be a misalignment from his feet all the way up to his head. Once he was re-aligned the migraines were no longer.

Stay away from chocolate (and cheese!) if you know it to be a trigger.

See a neurologist.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:17 PM on September 15, 2010

I get migraines and my neurologist did some biofeedback work with me which I did find useful -- at around age 30. But I can't imagine that even the most legitimate biofeedback would be useful with a 2.5 year old. (And I'm a mom, if that matters.)

I started migraines at a very young age, when all I could express was, "I have an over-the-eye headache." For me the main triggers were bright lights/sunlight, flickering fluorescent lights, dry weather and dehydration.

I say work with a mainstream doc and avoid that biofeedback.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:20 PM on September 15, 2010

The "biofeedback" device would indeed seem to not have anything to do with biofeedback as it is known to actual medical science.

It is, instead, yet another "electrodiagnostic" BS-machine.

Since migraines are not amenable to placebo treatment even in very gullible adults, there is zero chance that electrodiagnosis and homeopathy will be of any use when applied to a toddler. Unless, of course, the migraines go away by themselves as the child grows and you mistakenly presume that whatever you tried last must have cured them, or the "homeopathic" remedy turns out to be one of the ones that's been mysteriously contaminated with a normal drug that does what the homeopathic remedy is meant to do.
posted by dansdata at 6:23 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Assuming you have health insurance, I would rather pay a third of that amount in a co-pay and see a pediatric neurologist.
posted by phunniemee at 6:28 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I second all of the skepticism regarding biofeedback in this case. There is high-quality, peer-reviewed research supporting specific biofeedback protocols for a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions, but in my very limited experience (i.e. sitting in with a biofeedback guy one day a week on one internship rotation) it took a relatively high-functioning and committed adult to really benefit from it, and the idea of attempting it with a child that young strikes me as absurd.

See a pediatric neurologist if you haven't already; this is their domain and this is not the sort of thing that should be taken lightly.

Following that, if options are running out and you're serious about considering biofeedback further, get on google scholar and start searching terms like "biofeedback for pediatric migraine", etc.

posted by jimmysmits at 6:33 PM on September 15, 2010

I was trained to use biofeedback to alter my circulation (warm my hands) and reduce muscle tension in my neck and jaw to deal with my migraines - in my late 20s. I can't imagine that working for a toddler. I'd agree with the recommendations about a pediatric neurologist, especially one specializing in migraine. Triggers for me that might be relevant are dropping barometric pressure, chocolate, sulfites. Sorry to hear about your kiddo - having migraines in a kid that young is the pits!
posted by leslies at 6:45 PM on September 15, 2010

This is not exactly answering the question I know, but I used to get constant headaches throughout my childhood and it ended up just simply being triggered by too much sunlight. Have you tried getting her a good pair of sunglasses? You may not think she's out in the sun much, but even as an adult I go virtually nowhere outside without my sunglasses on and I will still occasionally get migraines from getting too much sun. Just a thought.
posted by whoaali at 6:56 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

My brother had migraines at this age and through early elementary school. He ate sauce-and-meatballs pizza while our sister and I had pepperoni and cheese; we pretended hot dogs didn't exist. I can't tell you how happy everyone was when it went away.

Spend the money on doctors - on play therapy or a special "safe and quiet and dark" room or anything really, but not on homeopathy, please.
posted by SMPA at 7:01 PM on September 15, 2010

If you're looking at non-traditional remedies for reasons other than just medical costs, there is a middle ground between traditional, FDA/AMA approved medicine & homeopathy, and that is herbal remedies (FDA/AMA unapproved, for the most part, but relatively easy to "check the science" on). If you wish to look into this 3rd option, make SURE you get expert information regarding dosing and appropriateness to small children.

As a former health-food-store worker, I am appalled by how many people equate "natural" with "cannot hurt you." This is not true, doses absolutely can matter, and not all things appropriate for adults are appropriate for children. Also, working in a health food store does not make a person (or me) an expert: At the store I worked at our training consisted of reading labels, word of mouth, & whatever knowledge we walked in the door with.
posted by Ys at 7:49 PM on September 15, 2010

I also have had migraines from a very young age and have found legitimate biofeedback, as described by others, to be somewhat but not radically helpful since I got old enough to concentrate adequately on it (whacking good doses of triptan drugs, not surprisingly, have been more efficacious overall).

I have to agree that a kid that young probably won't get as much out of it as an adult would, but kids can have a surprising capacity to focus on things, particularly if there's the potential reward of not feeling like your brain is going to explode. I specifically recall a directed relaxation tape being useful to me around the 3-5 age range -- if nothing else, it often let me sleep out the worst of things -- and when I was not in pain, I thought it was a pretty good game to see how I could, for instance, affect my pulse by changing my breathing. It could be worth exploring (the real kind, not the homeopathic kind).

In case it helps you, I recall that when I got migraines as a kid, it often hurt too much and made me too queasy to get up and wake my mother, so I would cry much harder than necessary so she would get up and check on me. Then I ended up with a tension headache too, which sucked. If you suspect a similar situation with your kid, maybe rig up a way she can alert you without having to move around too much?

Also, if she has aura with her migraine, in my experience that's been a small blessing -- it gives me a little warning to go home and hide in bed. 2 1/2 is probably old enough for her to learn to recognize an aura and give you a heads-up.
posted by dorque at 7:54 PM on September 15, 2010

Have you actually confirmed that they are migraines, and not some other kind of headache?
posted by gjc at 8:08 PM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: Read Heal Your Headache by David Buchholz instead. You'll get a lot more for your $10 than you will from any biofeedback test that costs 15x that. Granted, the book is directed at adults, but the theories are the same.

My only qualifications (IINAD, obviously) merely includes being a long-time migraine sufferer. This book (and well, and a diagnosis of *why* I have headaches) changed my life.

Have you seen a doctor? A neuro? Start there first. Once you've exhausted all that modem medicine can do for you, then you can break out the biofeedback machine.
posted by cgg at 8:57 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "Have you actually confirmed that they are migraines, and not some other kind of headache?"

I don't know how you confirm migraines. Her pediatrician consulted a national children's hospital who said her symptoms sound like migraines. There is also a family history (paternal grandmother) of migraines. She does get multiple types of headaches - tension headaches from stressful situations - hunger headaches but when she has a migraine there is a physical reaction where she shuts down and wants no stimulus whatsoever. She can't articulate her magnitude of pain.

I appreciate the response regarding a pediatric neurologist. I am not sure why my ped hasn't suggested this. I'll start there.
posted by turtlefu at 9:12 PM on September 15, 2010

I have actual migraines.

My neurologists went over my descriptions for two hours per appointment, in-depth, with tons of very, very specific questions. MRIs were ordered, one normal to see specific white-matter lesions in the brain common to migraine, and two with contrast to see the veins and arteries in my head and neck to rule out vascular isues. Medications were prescribed-- a prophylactic medication for everyday use that modifies a very specific neurotransmitter in the brain, and a triptan (Imitrex) for use when a migraine episode starts. Vitamin supplements were added to my diet only after regular old clinical blood tests were used to figure out where my current vitamin levels were; they get adjusted sometimes, but only after more test results come in.

My docs answer their own emails and have dedicated coordinators handling their patients directly. Every trip to the office is as thorough as it gets. Nothing in my history is left unturned. Every treatment is directly backed by some form of clinical evidence; my docs have pretty serious credentials as far as peer-reviewed journal publication in their specialties.

That's migraine science these days, as cutting-edge as it comes, straight from the #7 neurology teaching and research unit in the nation (University of California Los Angeles Ronald Reagan Medical Center).

Migraine is not just a headache, it is a complex neurological disorder with multiple possible avenues of treatment. You need a pediatric neurologist to see your daughter, and preferably one who specializes in migraines and how to differentiate them from other conditions, such as epilepsy. (The two conditions overlap and coexist; migraines also correlate with Meniere's disease, vertigo, OCD, and other unfun medical issues.) You may need to travel for this, to a pediatric specialty hospital or a research and teaching facility like the Cleveland Clinic. It might get expensive.

Honestly, though, if your kid is hurting, the sooner you can apply the cutting edge of evidence-based science to her problems, the better off she'll be longterm. I am in the third generation of migraine sufferers in my family, and some of my relatives are still having 3-5 days of migraines a week because they haven't hooked up the right docs and the right research.

Good luck. MeMail me if you want to bitch and rant at the sky about the unfairness factor.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:36 PM on September 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oh, and there are specific genetic markers that can be tested for certain subtypes of migraine these days, too. Forgot that; my docs haven't considered it in my case yet, but the tests are out there. If it is hereditary and specifically a certain kind of migraine, a good neuro can order the test and confirm the diagnosis.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:39 PM on September 15, 2010

Nthing the suggestion to go to a neurologist. That should be the first step in diagnosing migraine, both to rule out more serious problems and to get treatment.

The neuro will probably do an EEG and a MRI.
posted by amberwb at 10:46 PM on September 15, 2010

Nthing see a neurologist. I have a pain condition that was not diagnosed until my early 20s, which I remember having symptoms of for my entire life. Many doctors saw "Young person/kid" + Pain and didnt look beyond it, and thought it might be migraines until I could articulate my symptoms well enough to tell them that NO it was not that, and nor was it allergies or sinus problems or any of the other things they kept giving me treatments for that only made it worse.

A neurologist took one look at my head xrays, looked at me in the midst of a horrible pain attack, and goes "OH, yeah, here, have these pills, and here is what is wrong with you, why weren't you in here as a kid?"
posted by strixus at 1:02 AM on September 16, 2010

Biofeedback is one thing, but the idea of using it solely to recommend homeopathic treatments will probably get more skeptical responses from the actual-migraine crowd here.
posted by amtho at 4:29 AM on September 16, 2010

Just as a thought, I have migraines triggered by (among other things) motion sickness. So while you're seeing the pediatric neurologist and keeping track of food triggers and exploring other options, that might be one more thing to track.

now I just wish I knew what set off the one I had yesterday.
posted by galadriel at 5:19 AM on September 16, 2010

the biofeedback is "spectravision" and it supposedly can recommend homeopathic treatments

Homeopathic "medicine", as you suspected, is quackery. I understand your desire to find some way, any way, to help this painful-for-everyone situation, but please do not waste your time with this. As others have said, the biofeedback itself can be useful for older kids, teens, and adults, but I would be concerned about a child as young as 2 1/2 being expected to use it successfully.

My migraines started at around the same age (I think I was 4ish) and are probably the reason I do not have many memories of childhood. What I do remember, quite clearly, was asking my mom to kill me "like old yeller" and end the pain. Please take your little dude to a pediatric neurologist. It will change her life for the better.
posted by elizardbits at 5:34 AM on September 16, 2010

If you are looking for a "non-medical" treatment that you can try at home for little money, put your daughter on a very strict, allergen limiting diet for 30 days, and keep a diary of her headaches. The diet would be something like this:
- No dairy (eggs are fine): so no milk, cheese, yogurt, etc
- No grains, rice, or corn: no wheat, oats, barley, corn (cornstarch, corn syrup, etc)
- No sugar: including artificial sweeteners and so-called natural sweeteners like honey, agave, sucanat, etc
- No beans or legumes: specifically no peanuts, and no soy

Is this diet kind of extreme? Yes. However, as you probably already know, many many many migraines are caused by dietary triggers and the systemic inflammation that can arise from daily consumption of an allergen. For me personally, my headaches are about 10000x more frequent and painful when I'm consuming wheat than not. If your daughter sees an improvement after 30 days, you can start slowly reintroducing these foods into her diet, still keeping the diary, and tracking which do and do not have an effect. Definitely wait at least a few weeks between re-introducing foods so you can verify which foods have or do not have an effect.
posted by telegraph at 6:37 AM on September 16, 2010

If you're looking for a way to treat her medications without medication, you might want to look into acupuncture. I'm not sure how long a child of that age would be able to stay still for treatment, but acupuncture is the ONLY thing that has stopped my migraines after 30 years of suffering with them. Depending where you live, you may be able to find a practitioner who works with children and could advise you.
posted by jrichards at 6:50 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always like to point out the difference between:

homeopathic - Invented in the early 1800s, it involves diluting a substance down to less than 1% of 1% of its original concentration, which somehow is supposed to kick-start the body's vital force. (Hmmmm. . . neat idea, until you learn that there's no evidence this has anything to do with reality, and it doesn't work.)

holistic - simply the idea that health and well-being can be promoted--and disease reduced--by treating the "whole" patient with good medicine, good food, and good times

I've met "alternative medicine" people who sadly used the two terms interchangeably.
posted by General Tonic at 7:24 AM on September 16, 2010

No to the obviously bogus electrodiagnostic machine. Yes to real biofeedback, for learning to relax and to consciously warm the hands, but not for a child below school age. Yes to seeing a pediatric neurologist. Neurologists are the experts you want to see for migraines.

The Heal Your Headache book that cgg recommended was helpful for me, too. I'd never guessed that bananas are such a serious migraine trigger. I was never able to find my dietary triggers until I read in that book about the one- to two-day delay between eating the bad food and getting the headache.

For me, wheat and most dairy foods are absolutely fine, and I rather resent all the people who assured me so many times that quitting them would help me. No, avoiding them just added to my suffering. My triggers are bananas, aged cheeses, citrus fruit, red wine, commercially made pizza, and anything with yeast extract or monosodium glutamate in the ingredient list. My younger son's only headache trigger is motion sickness, easily prevented with Dramamine before a long car ride. My older son's main headache trigger was homework-related stress. Both my sons can eat all the foods that I can't, without triggering a migraine.
posted by Ery at 8:08 AM on September 16, 2010

I forgot to add some things I wished I had told people when I had migraines as a child: I wanted darkness when it was in progress, light hurt; rubbing my head helped but I was too shy to ask so rubbed my own head a bit when not feeling too nauseous to move (not where the pain typically is over an eye, but the back of my head); I felt really sick and was worried a lot about throwing up and making a mess (putting a bucket next to bed is very comforting); and letting the school know I had migraines and would like to either curl up quietly in sick bay or go home ASAP if I started seeing spots and hurting would have rocked (they tended to either not believe me until I threw up or started curling up crying or called in a doctor who said I had a migraine and charged my parents, which made them mad).

In high school I started collecting over-the-counter painkillers over time and knew that I needed to take 12 (!!!!) to have a chance at stopping a migraine, it was not good for me at all and there are many real good medications that would have been much better in much smaller quantities.
posted by meepmeow at 4:03 PM on September 16, 2010

If they are indeed migraines, they often come with nausea, so doing what you can to alleviate that might be helpful as well. Remove any strong scents from the area and try not to wear strong perfumes. I know when I was younger my mom would give me the mop bucket in case I threw up, but the smell of the residual cleaning fluid often made me more nauseated!

Do not take/administer 12 of anything without consulting a doctor. (Sounds like meepmeow knows this now.)
posted by IndigoRain at 1:26 AM on September 17, 2010

Response by poster: We've been following the advice of "heal your headache". The headaches are not totally gone but we have identified more triggers (red grapes, artificial food coloring, cultured dairy). It was a really helpful book.
posted by turtlefu at 8:40 PM on November 7, 2010

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