As more health practices begin to incorporate alternative means of medicine, more open-minded approaches to treatment and recovery have taken prominent roles in the doctor’s office. From pet therapy to resistance training, several new methods of medical care have become the norm where few options previously existed.
Now, doctors are turning to the most powerful organ in the human body to aid in the preparation and recovery processes following surgery: the brain.
Lisa Grossman, Ph.D./ATC/BCB, a performance psychology consultant of SMR Performance Consulting, has been studying the link between stress and recovery for years with the use of biofeedback – the process by which automatic body functions are monitored electronically to help train patients identify and gain control of those functions under stress. As a medical professional who has worked with high-pressure performers such as professional athletes, Grossman is familiar with the ways the body’s stress signals can hamper performance, diminish health and slow recovery.
“What biofeedback does is … monitor what’s going on with the body in terms of stress response, like heart rate increasing or muscles tensing, and its ability to achieve coherence,” she said. “It measures the ability to remain neutral, in control and not over-activated. I use it to help patients learn how to reach that calm state because it’s beneficial in medicine. When the body is calm, it’s much better for the healing process.”
A breakthrough for orthopaedic patients
Understanding that link, Grossman took her method of biofeedback training to a different demographic, completing dissertation research at Baptist Medical Center Beaches with the help of Steven Lancaster, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon of the Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute (JOI).
The pilot study consisted of 60 orthopaedic patients over the course of six months in which the degree of impact of biofeedback and a mental preparation method known as “guided imagery” was observed among patients who had joint replacement surgery.
In the sample group of hip and knee patients, guided imagery participants received an MP3 player with a surgery-specific script detailing day-of-surgery events to help mentally prepare them for their upcoming procedures. Patients were then guided through a series of controlled-breathing techniques that acted as a catalyst for the relaxation response. Similarly, the biofeedback group received portable units that measured heart-rate variability and were trained on how to achieve a state of “physiological coherence,” or heart-brain synchrony, by identifying a stress response and focusing on shutting it down. The study showed that patients who used both methods used less pain medication overall.
For Grossman, the study of orthopaedic patients was a personal one; the Jacksonville Beach resident has been an orthopaedic patient herself since the age of 13, having had her first knee surgery at 15 and a replacement at the age of 31. With a total of 12 knee surgeries throughout her life and her own experience as a practitioner, Grossman understood first-hand the need to constantly improve the patient experience.
“As a patient, I’ve seen orthopaedics up and down the coast of this country,” she said. “So I’m happy to see people in the Jacksonville area are really open to exploring alternative methods because they’re incredibly powerful and impactful. Biofeedback training will allow patients to heal better, recover faster and enjoy their new joints and things they haven’t been able to do without pain for quite some time. It increases the likelihood of successful surgery.”
Recalling the study, Grossman noted the numerous ways a combination of biofeedback training and guided imagery could help with orthopaedic patients.
“(Biofeedback training) can help tremendously with orthopaedic patients, especially seniors facing orthopaedic issues,” she said. “It’ll help them relax their minds and prepare for surgery mentally and physically, and it helps lower resting heart-rate. It relaxes the body so the individual will have more flexibility and can move the joint, which is so important after surgery to restore and improve the range of motion, and it serves as a distraction so that patients have something other than pain and nervousness to focus on.”
A universal method of control
Grossman also emphasized the usefulness of the training in addressing a variety of medical issues because of its ability to help the body achieve an ideal state. Because of its focus on targeting and identifying stressors and the body’s natural reaction to them, biofeedback training can be used on just about any patient experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety: from college students preparing for midterms and athletes readying themselves for games to law enforcement professionals and social workers.
Overall, Grossman hopes that more patients will understand the role of the mind in recovery and try to learn these techniques to eliminate the negative impacts of stress on health.
“Even without equipment, you can learn the techniques and achieve coherence,” she said. “The range (of this training) is huge. Being able to shut down a stress response that inhibits cognitive function, prolongs recovery and causes more severe cardiovascular issues will improve your ability to function.”