The Bionic Woman

by Kim Stowers

Kim Stowers was introduced to Fibromylagia when she was 21 years old. She was devastated when the symptoms took control of her life. As a passionate college student with an eye on graduate school, waking up every day with the pain and fog has been challenging. Her dream to become a research psychologist keeps her going. In the meantime, Kim lives life one breath, one flare-up, one nap, and one foggy effort at a time.

Do you ever feel helpless in the face of your pain? I think we all do at one time or another. Living with fibromyalgia can be exhausting for both the body and the mind. Biofeedback has made a tremendous difference in my management of pain. Yes, I still have pain every day, but I am no longer scared of it or controlled by it. Thanks to biofeedback, I am able to control my pain instead of letting it control me!

What is biofeedback?

Biofeedback is a way of training people to control bodily processes that normally happen without our knowledge. With biofeedback, you can learn to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, equalize your skin temperature, and decrease muscle tension. All of this can be done with your mind.

Wait, what?

The idea of controlling your own body in such an intimate way may sound bizarre, but it is perfectly doable. With some help from a biofeedback therapist, some fancy equipment, and diligent daily practice you can become a mind-master in just a matter of weeks. You have more power than you think you do!

So…How does it work?

There isn’t complete agreement among researchers and doctors about how biofeedback works. However, it appears to be a matter of learning to relax properly. All of the things I mentioned above are characteristics of being in a relaxed state.

Of course, relaxing is easier said than done, especially if you’re in constant pain. That is why successful biofeedback relies on guidance. Your biofeedback therapist will hook you up to equipment, lead you through mental techniques for relaxation, and allow you to view your body’s activity on a computer screen. Over time, you will be able to see your own success as your vital functions slow down and you learn to relax properly. Eventually, you will be able to relax on your own!

But how will it help me?

Learning to relax properly has far-reaching benefits. Your body works less when you are relaxed, allowing you to breathe more easily, sleep more easily, and cope with pain more easily. In contrast, when you are stressed, your body can have a hard time relaxing, causing disruptions in sleep and daily functioning. For this reason, biofeedback has been found to be particularly useful in people who are experiencing high levels of mental and physical stress. By bringing the mind and body from a stressed state back to a relaxed state, many difficulties can be alleviated.

People with fibromyalgia experience chronic physical stress through pain, making fibromyalgia patients great candidates for biofeedback therapy. At the same time, having such overactive pain signaling systems can make the journey more challenging for fibromyalgia patients than for people in the general population. The important thing is to be willing to practice and persevere!

What should I expect?

You will be hooked up to several devices. Devices used in biofeedback therapy can vary with the therapist. You may have items attached to your fingers for measuring pulse, blood pressure, and skin temperature. You may have a probe attached to a shoulder to measure muscle tension. You may have probes attached to your head to measure brain wave activity, or a probe attached to your wrist for measuring skin conductivity.

These items are non-invasive and usually held on with tape. But to a fibromyalgia sufferer, anything that touches the skin may feel invasive. If you feel too sensitive, try going to therapy on days when you are in the least amount of pain, or talk to your therapist about alternate ways of learning to relax.

You will need to have several weekly sessions. Start biofeedback therapy during a time in your life when you know you can find a reliable way to go to therapy on a weekly basis. Each session will likely last less than an hour, but your therapist will recommend you come in for 5-10 sessions, or even more.

You will need to practice every day. Biofeedback therapy is a type of training. You are training your body to learn new habits, and you are training your mind to take control. You won’t get far doing this once per week and then forgetting about it for six days. If you want to feel the long-term benefits of biofeedback therapy, you should practice what you learn at each session for several minutes every day following that session.

What will I learn?

The following are techniques I learned over a span of 5 therapy sessions. You can do them on your own, but it is easier to master them when you are hooked up to equipment and able to see how your body is reacting!

Diaphragmatic Breathing: This is the easiest technique to learn. It involves breathing deeply and slowly through the nose while monitoring the expansion of your diaphragm. If you are breathing properly, your stomach should expand more than your chest. Once you master this, you can take a true deep breath.

Progressive Relaxation: This is a relatively simple way of learning the difference in how your body feels when it is tense compared to when it is relaxed. Simply tense each muscle in your body, one at a time, for 5 seconds, then let it relax for 20 seconds.

Deep Muscle Relaxation: This is like progressive relaxation without the tension. Instead of tensing each muscle and then relaxing it, just relax each muscle one at a time. This takes a bit more skill than progressive relaxation, because you must be absolutely sure of what the feeling of relaxation in each muscle is. Once you truly master it, however, it can be a great tool during flare-ups and spasms.

Autogenic Training: This is a more specialized way of interacting with your muscles. The goal is to warm up your muscles, especially in your extremities where blood circulation may be restricted. In the same way that you relax one muscle at a time during muscle relaxation, you attempt to “heat up” one muscle at a time by thinking of phrases that induce warmness. I like to think of sunbathing in 90-degree weather.

Guided Imagery: This is the most advanced technique taught in biofeedback training. It involves taking all of the other things you learn and using your imagination to incorporate them into creating a “safe place” in your mind. For example, I like to pretend I am lying on a secluded beach, in hot weather with a gentle breeze. I feel the sun on each muscle, and then I feel each muscle relax. I feel the breeze as it comes into my nostrils and I take a deep breath. Peace at last!

More Information

Find a biofeedback practitioner:

http://www.aapb.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3281

More information on biofeedback:

http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/biofeedback-000349.htm

My Life has the Tendency to Fall Apart When I’m Awake

Do you think Ernest Hemingway (author of the quote in the title) had FM?

As we all know, even if we are lucky enough to sleep 10 hours a night, we are still fatigued and exhausted.

Research shows that with FM, there is an automatic arousal in the brain during sleep. Frequent disruptions prevent the important restorative processes from occurring. Growth hormone is mostly produced during sleep. Without restorative sleep and the surge of growth hormone, muscles may not heal and neurotransmitters (like the mood chemical serotonin) are not replenished. The lack of a good night’s sleep makes people with FM wake up feeling tired and fatigued.

The result: The body can’t recuperate from the day’s stresses – all of which overwhelms the system, creating a greater sensitivity to pain. Widespread pain, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and memory difficulties are all symptoms of FM (just in case you hadn’t noticed!).

Insomnia takes many forms — trouble falling asleep, waking up often during the night, having trouble going back to sleep, and waking up too early in the morning. Research shows that smoothing out those sleep problems – and helping people get the deep sleep their bodies need – helps fibromyalgia pain improve significantly.

But how?

Medications can help enhance sleep and relieve pain. But doctors also advocate lifestyle changes to help sleep come naturally:

  • Enjoy a soothing (warm) bath in the evening.
  • Brush your body with a loofah or long-handled brush in the bath.
  • Ease painful tender points with a self-massage device (like a tennis ball).
  • Do yoga and stretching exercises to relax.
  • Listen to calming music.
  • Meditate to tame intrusive thoughts and tension.
  • Sleep in a darkened room. Try an eye mask if necessary.
  • Keep the room as quiet as possible (or use a white-noise machine).
  • Make sure the room temperature is comfortable.
  • Avoid foods that contain caffeine, including teas, colas, and chocolate.

Therapies to Treat Insomnia When You Have Fibromyalgia

If you’re still having sleep problems, several therapies can help, including biofeedback, relaxation training, stress reduction, and cognitive therapy. A psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders can discuss these therapies with you. The therapies help people handle stress better, which helps control FM episodes, When you’re stressed out, FM tends to flare and you feel worse – that’s when you’re most likely to have insomnia, too.

Medications can also help ease FM pain at night, or directly treat insomnia. Medications to ease pain and improve sleep include certain types of antidepressants, anticonvulsants, prescription pain relievers, and sleep aids.

BUT, as we kept getting told (a lot!), no one therapy will control FM pain 100 per cent. So start to mix it up and use all the tools that are beginning to come to light.