Migraine relief without meds
By Mary Butler for the Boulder Camera
For more than 20 years, Broomfield resident Debbie Graus has tried just about everything to treat and prevent chronic migraines so painful and nauseating that, without medication, there's little else she can do but retreat to a dark room and put ice on her head. Even the latest and greatest medications have eventually stopped working -- or the side effects have been incentive to seek other treatments, she says.
"I decided I needed to try something different," Graus says. Two months ago, Graus began biofeedback therapy as a preventative measure, and the results are encouraging, she says. Before, she'd have about eight migraines a month; she's had two since beginning therapy.
Migraines, which affect more than 30 million Americans, are related to blood flow through the arteries. Sometimes when under stress, a person's arteries constrict. For instance, during the fight-or-flight response, the arteries do this to limit blood loss in the case of an attack. But when arteries open up too much after having been constricted, the blood goes throbbing to the eyes and brain, causing a migraine.
Biofeedback therapy uses instruments to measure certain body functions -- sweat gland activity, respiration, circulation, heart rate, and muscle tension; the accompanying information -- or biological feedback -- helps migraine sufferers learn how to control their responses. Biofeedback and related mind-body visualization and relaxation techniques also assist in preventing muscle-tension headaches, which are caused when muscles in the shoulders, neck, head and face tighten.
"It's really incredible, and it helps," Graus says of biofeedback. "I'm understanding more about why I'm getting the headaches, and that there are things I can do to prevent them. It's always been a mystery to me. I could feel a headache coming on, and there was nothing I could do. Now I can say, 'I need to breath, I need to relax.' I can do neck and shoulder exercises. And I've been able to stop them."
Graus' biofeedback therapist, Kelsie Kenefick, says it's stories like Graus' that make her work so gratifying. Kenefick, who lives in Boulder and became a certified biofeedback therapist in 1994, bases her practice on empowering patients. After 12 to 16 sessions, she says, patients have the skills to manage their headaches, stress, or pain.
"I'm a coach, I'm a teacher, not a healer," she says. "My patients are not dependent on me for years and years, and that's why I love it." She had one client who suffered three migraines a week for 30 years and after less than four months of therapy the client was controlling her headaches, Kenefick says.
Kenefick, who taught yoga for 18 years and has a master's degree in humanistic psychology and education, became interested in natural pain management after she was injured in a car accident. She discovered the power of biofeedback and went on to become a Biofeedback Certification Institute of America-credentialed therapist.
Now she uses a variety of visualization, breathing, and relaxation techniques along with biofeedback with her patients. Two years ago, she published a book, "Migraines Be Gone: 7 Simple Steps to Eliminating Your Migraines Forever," illustrating her methods. Kenefick will be giving a free presentation about her work Wednesday evening at Boulder Community Foothills Hospital.
Biofeedback therapy is nothing new, and is widely accepted in traditional medical circles as an effective means of preventing migraines and muscle tension headaches. However, it's never been, and still isn't, as mainstream as taking medications for headache prevention and pain relief.
But as integrative medicine becomes more popular, interest in biofeedback and other alternative prevention measures grows, says Dr. Victoria Pelak, an associate professor of neurology and ophthalmology at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, who's an expert in migraines and migraine symptoms.
In every field, Pelak says, "the last couple of years have brought renewed interest in trying to get away from pharmaceutical treatments." An integrative approach makes sense for a lot of patients, she says.
For her own migraine patients, Pelak says she tells them there are two solutions to the problem: one is to focus on prevention, which can decrease frequency, severity or duration of migraines; the other is to treat sudden headaches.
There are medications that aid in migraine prevention, but Pelak says studies show biofeedback therapy works just as well, or nearly as well, as those drugs that can be taken long-term.
"Prevention is much better than trying to get rid of migraine once it starts," Pelak says.
Some people are resistant to trying alternative therapies, she said, "it's not for everyone." The most important thing, she says, is that migraine sufferers take a hard look at when they have their headaches and what triggers them. "Once you understand your own migraines, you might be able to take control of them a little better," Pelak says.