Ask the dentist: Harnessing the power of brainwaves to calm dental anxieties
Biofeedback can help ease jaw pain, says Lucy Stock, dentist at Gental Dental Care in Belfast
ONE day, long ago, I was in the physiology lab at Glasgow Uni where my group was meant to be focusing on a set experiment.
Instead, one of the dental students decided to hook himself up to the laboratory equipment.
He was a swimmer - who just happened to be the best-looking guy on the course... - and he proceeded to prove how he could reduce his heart rate at will. As we stared at the dial and watched the numbers drop, he immediately went to the top of the super cool rankings.
I didn't realise it at the time, but he was demonstrating a technique called biofeedback. When we catch a ball or hop up and down, we are controlling our muscles but there are many other functions in the body like blood pressure, heart rate and skin temperature that are controlled automatically by our nervous system.
Interestingly, as my fellow student showed, these normally involuntary functions can be controlled; the effects can also be harnessed to help treat unwanted medical problems like migraine, headaches, jaw joint pain, facial muscle pain and even incontinence.
The exact mechanism of how biofeedback therapy works is still unclear, but participants in the concept do find it helpful in relaxation and pain reduction.
A biofeedback therapist guides a person through the process where, during a session, electrodes are attached to the skin and fingers. The display shows you what your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, skin temperature or muscle activity are.
The therapist will then teach you how to control these bodily functions so that when you are in a position of high anxiety - for example being at the dentist or when you feel a migraine coming on - you will be able to control your body, slow it down and relax.
The technique can help to calm the brainwaves which would normally trigger a headache or show you how to progressively relax muscles to reduce painful tension in the face, neck or shoulders.
These sessions often involve learning deep breathing techniques and they can also utilise guided imagery for deeper relaxation.
The chronic pain from jaw joint dysfunction can be debilitating for sufferers so anything that helps to reduce the daily face ache is welcome.