Robin Wright's back pain was the kind where "it hurt to breathe, even take a shower. Some days I didn't get out of pajamas," said Wright, 49, a retired sergeant with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.
Injured nine years ago and wanting to avoid surgery, she tried prescription pain relievers and cortisone shots, but nothing cut the pain. Now when she feels it coming on, she sits in a chair and breathes the pain down, if not away, using biofeedback.
Once dismissed as New Age woo-woo, biofeedback increasingly is suggested by doctors, physical therapists and psychologists as a way to deal with chronic pain, headaches and anxiety. It also is considered helpful for epilepsy, attention deficit disorder, post traumatic stress, asthma, high blood pressure, incontinence and side effects of chemotherapy.
Biofeedback specialists say recognition has come through a general understanding of how stress affects health.
"In the last couple decades, there's been a sea change of understanding between ongoing stress and its effect on the body," said biofeedback therapist Stephen Wall. Biofeedback measures stress and teaches people how to reduce it.
"It's not woo woo. It's science all day long," said Wall, who runs the Bioresearch Institute in Sebastopol.
Patients sit in front of a computer monitor, connected to electrical sensors that deliver feedback on functions of the nervous system that include brain waves, muscle tension, skin temperature, respiration, heart rate and blood pressure.
Trainers then suggest breathing exercises or relaxation techniques and monitor how they alter heart rate, muscle tension or other functions.
The goal is teaching people how to regulate their own nervous systems by changing thoughts, emotions or behavior.
Biofeedback is a training, not a treatment, however.
"I'm still broken," said Wright. "I have three herniated discs in my low back. They won't go away with biofeedback, but I've learned how to function."