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."
Wright, injured when she slipped on a wet floor, compares her learned breathing to "what moms giving birth do with Lamaze. I focus on breathing from my tummy. It's almost interactive, like I'm talking to my body.
"I could see on a screen what the difference was when I was clenching my teeth and when I relaxed and regulated my breathing."
Santa Rosa biofeedback therapist Peter Behel likens it to "correcting the steering of your car to keep it from drifting off the side the road."
Carolyn Ewer of Santa Rosa, a retired accountant, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1990. She learned how to offset tremors by slowing her breath and calming her mind.
"I can do it while I'm washing dishes," she said. "Biofeedback training is basically a means of quieting the arousal (in her brain)."
Lindsey Douros, a nurse who took biofeedback training as a student at Sonoma State University, said, "I think if you took 30 feedback sessions, you could cut your anxiety meds by half."
It takes practice "to recalibrate the mind and body tension," said Wall, because many people naturally go around in an unrelaxed state.
"Folks may be inadvertently hyperventilating throughout the day, which can cause that headache or anxiety disorder," Wall said. "The body may not know it's tensing all the time.
"In biofeedback, we teach how to corral the measures back to healthy levels. Once you see it on the screen, you get it."