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Library of Research Articles on Veterans and CIH Therapies

January 2021 Edition


Berry ME, Chapple IT, Ginsberg JP, Gleichauf KJ, Meyer JA, Nagpal ML. Non-pharmacological Intervention for Chronic Pain in Veterans: A Pilot Study of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback. Glob Adv Health Med. 2014


Chronic pain is an emotionally and physically debilitating form of pain that activates the body's stress response and over time can result in lowered heart rate variability (HRV) power, which is associated with reduced resiliency and lower self-regulatory capacity. This pilot project was intended to determine the effectiveness of HRV coherence biofeedback (HRVCB) as a pain and stress management intervention for veterans with chronic pain and to estimate the effect sizes. It was hypothesized that HRVCB will increase parasympathetic activity resulting in higher HRV coherence measured as power and decrease self-reported pain symptoms in chronic pain patients.

Study Design

Fourteen veterans receiving treatment for chronic pain were enrolled in the pre-post intervention study. They were randomly assigned, with 8 subjects enrolled in the treatment group and 6 in the control group. The treatment group received biofeedback intervention plus standard care, and the other group received standard care only. The treatment group received four HRVCB training sessions as the intervention.


Pre-post measurements of HRV amplitude, HRV power spectrum variables, cardiac coherence, and self-ratings of perceived pain, stress, negative emotions, and physical activity limitation were made for both treatment and control groups.


The mean pain severity for all subjects at baseline, using the self-scored Brief Pain Inventory (BPI), was 26.71 (SD=4.46; range=21-35) indicating a moderate to severe perceived pain level across the study subjects. There was no significant difference between the treatment and control groups at baseline on any of the measures. Post-HRVCB, the treatment group was significantly higher on coherence (P=.01) and lower (P=.02) on pain ratings than the control group. The treatment group showed marked and statistically significant (1-tailed) increases over the baseline in coherence ratio (191%, P=.04) and marked, significant (1-tailed) reduction in pain ratings (36%, P<.001), stress perception (16%, P=.02), negative emotions (49%, P<.001), and physical activity limitation (42%, P<.001). Significant between-group effects on all measures were found when pre-training values were used as covariates.


HRVCB intervention was effective in increasing HRV coherence measured as power in the upper range of the LF band and reduced perceived pain, stress, negative emotions, and physical activity limitation in veterans suffering from chronic pain. HRVCB shows promise as an effective non-pharmacological intervention to support standard treatments for chronic pain.

Elbogen EB, Alsobrooks A, Battles S, Molloy K, Dennis PA, Beckham JC, McLean SA, Keith JR, Russoniello C. Mobile Neurofeedback for Pain Management in Veterans with TBI and PTSD. Pain Med. 2019 Nov 7. pii: pnz269.


Chronic pain is common in military veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Neurofeedback, or electroencephalograph (EEG) biofeedback, has been associated with lower pain but requires frequent travel to a clinic. The current study examined feasibility and explored effectiveness of neurofeedback delivered with a portable EEG headset linked to an application on a mobile device.


Open-label, single-arm clinical trial.

Setting: Home, outside of clinic.

Subjects: N = 41 veterans with chronic pain, TBI, and PTSD.


Veterans were instructed to perform "mobile neurofeedback" on their own for three months. Clinical research staff conducted two home visits and two phone calls to provide technical assistance and troubleshoot difficulties.


N = 36 veterans returned for follow-up at three months (88% retention). During this time, subjects completed a mean of 33.09 neurofeedback sessions (10 minutes each). Analyses revealed that veterans reported lower pain intensity, pain interference, depression, PTSD symptoms, anger, sleep disturbance, and suicidal ideation after the three-month intervention compared with baseline. Comparing pain ratings before and after individual neurofeedback sessions, veterans reported reduced pain intensity 67% of the time immediately following mobile neurofeedback. There were no serious adverse events reported.


This preliminary study found that veterans with chronic pain, TBI, and PTSD were able to use neurofeedback with mobile devices independently after modest training and support. While a double-blind randomized controlled trial is needed for confirmation, the results show promise of a portable, technology-based neuromodulatory approach for pain management with minimal side effects.

Fino PC et al. BMC Neurol. (2017)  Assessment and rehabilitation of central sensory impairments for balance in mTBI using auditory biofeedback: a randomized clinical trial.

Complaints of imbalance are common non-resolving signs in individuals with post-concussive syndrome. Yet, there is no consensus rehabilitation for non-resolving balance complaints following mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). The heterogeneity of balance deficits and varied rates of recovery suggest varied etiologies and a need for interventions that address the underlying causes of poor balance function. Our central hypothesis is that most chronic balance deficits after mTBI result from impairments in central sensorimotor integration that may be helped by rehabilitation. Two studies are described to 1) characterize balance deficits in people with mTBI who have chronic, non-resolving balance deficits compared to healthy control subjects, and 2) determine the efficacy of an augmented vestibular rehabilitation program using auditory biofeedback to improve central sensorimotor integration, static and dynamic balance, and functional activity in patients with chronic mTBI.

Two studies are described. Study 1 is a cross-sectional study to take place jointly at Oregon Health and Science University and the VA Portland Health Care System. The study participants will be individuals with non-resolving complaints of balance following mTBI and age- and gender-matched controls who meet all inclusion criteria. The primary outcome will be measures of central sensorimotor integration derived from a novel central sensorimotor integration test. Study 2 is a randomized controlled intervention to take place at Oregon Health & Science University. In this study, participants from Study 1 with mTBI and abnormal central sensorimotor integration will be randomized into two rehabilitation interventions. The interventions will be 6 weeks of vestibular rehabilitation 1) with or 2) without the use of an auditory biofeedback device. The primary outcome measure is the daily activity of the participants measured using an inertial sensor.

The results of these two studies will improve our understanding of the nature of balance deficits in people with mTBI by providing quantitative metrics of central sensorimotor integration, balance, and vestibular and ocular motor function. Study 2 will examine the potential for augmented rehabilitation interventions to improve central sensorimotor integration.

Freeman M, Ayers C, Kondo K, Noonan K, O'Neil M, Morasco B, Kansagara D. Guided Imagery, Biofeedback, and Hypnosis: A Map of the Evidence.  Washington (DC): Department of Veterans Affairs (US); 2019 Feb.

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) established the Integrative Health Coordinating Center (IHCC) with the Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation (OPCC&CT) to aid in development and implementation of complementary and integrative health (CIH) strategies across the VHA. This topic was nominated by Dr. Ben Kligler, National Director of the Coordinating Center for Integrative Health (IHCC) and Laura Krejci, Associate Director of the Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation (OPCC&CT). The purpose of this report is to provide a broad overview of the effectiveness of guided imagery, biofeedback, and hypnosis, and the health conditions for which these interventions have been examined in systematic reviews, in the form of evidence maps. The evidence maps will be used to guide and support decision-making about these treatment modalities in the VHA.

Gray SN. An Overview of the Use of Neurofeedback Biofeedback for the Treatment of Symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury in Military and Civilian Populations. Med Acupunct. 2017 Aug 1;29(4):215-219. doi: 10.1089/acu.2017.1220. Review.


Neurofeedback, a type of biofeedback, is an operant conditioning treatment that has been studied for use in the treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in both civilian and military populations. In this approach, users are able to see or hear representations of data related to their own physiologic responses to triggers, such as stress or distraction, in real time and, with practice, learn to alter these responses in order to reduce symptoms and/or improve performance.


This article provides a brief overview of the use of biofeedback, focusing on neurofeedback, for symptoms related to TBI, with applications for both civilian and military populations, and describes a pilot study that is currently underway looking at the effects of a commercial neurofeedback device on patients with mild-to-moderate TBIs.


Although more research, including blinded randomized controlled studies, is needed on the use of neurofeedback for TBI, the literature suggests that this approach shows promise for treating some symptoms of TBI with this modality. With further advances in technology, including at-home use of neurofeedback devices, preliminary data suggests that TBI survivors may benefit from improved motivation for treatment and some reduction of symptoms related to attention, mood, and mindfulness, with the addition of neurofeedback to treatment.

Kizakevich PN, Eckhoff RP, Lewis GF, Davila MI, Hourani LL, Watkins R, Weimer B, Wills T, Morgan JK, Morgan T, Meleth S, Lewis A, Krzyzanowski MC, Ramirez D, Boyce M, Litavecz SD, Lane ME, Strange LB. Biofeedback-Assisted Resilience Training for Traumatic and Operational Stress: Preliminary Analysis of a Self-Delivered Digital Health Methodology. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019 Sep 6;7(9):e12590

Psychological resilience is critical to minimize the health effects of traumatic events. Trauma may induce a chronic state of hyperarousal, resulting in problems such as anxiety, insomnia, or posttraumatic stress disorder. Mind-body practices, such as relaxation breathing and mindfulness meditation, help to reduce arousal and may reduce the likelihood of such psychological distress. To better understand resilience-building practices, we are conducting the Biofeedback-Assisted Resilience Training (BART) study to evaluate whether the practice of slow, paced breathing with or without heart rate variability biofeedback can be effectively learned via a smartphone app to enhance psychological resilience.

Our objective was to conduct a limited, interim review of user interactions and study data on use of the BART resilience training app and demonstrate analyses of real-time sensor-streaming data.

We developed the BART app to provide paced breathing resilience training, with or without heart rate variability biofeedback, via a self-managed 6-week protocol. The app receives streaming data from a Bluetooth-linked heart rate sensor and displays heart rate variability biofeedback to indicate movement between calmer and stressful states. To evaluate the app, a population of military personnel, veterans, and civilian first responders used the app for 6 weeks of resilience training. We analyzed app usage and heart rate variability measures during rest, cognitive stress, and paced breathing. Currently released for the BART research study, the BART app is being used to collect self-reported survey and heart rate sensor data for comparative evaluation of paced breathing relaxation training with and without heart rate variability biofeedback.

To date, we have analyzed the results of 328 participants who began using the BART app for 6 weeks of stress relaxation training via a self-managed protocol. Of these, 207 (63.1%) followed the app-directed procedures and completed the training regimen. Our review of adherence to protocol and app-calculated heart rate variability measures indicated that the BART app acquired high-quality data for evaluating self-managed stress relaxation training programs.

Kondo K, Noonan KM, Freeman M, Ayers C, Morasco BJ, Kansagara D.  Efficacy of Biofeedback for Medical Conditions: an Evidence Map.  J Gen Intern Med. 2019 Aug 14. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05215-z.

Biofeedback is increasingly used to treat clinical conditions in a wide range of settings; however, evidence supporting its use remains unclear. The purpose of this evidence map is to illustrate the conditions supported by controlled trials, those that are not, and those in need of more research.

We searched multiple data sources (MEDLINE, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Epistemonikos, and EBM Reviews through September 2018) for good-quality systematic reviews examining biofeedback for clinical conditions. We included the highest quality, most recent review representing each condition and included only controlled trials from those reviews. We relied on quality ratings reported in included reviews. Outcomes of interest were condition-specific, secondary, and global health outcomes, and harms. For each review, we computed confidence ratings and categorized reported findings as no effect, unclear, or insufficient; evidence of a potential positive effect; or evidence of a positive effect. We present our findings in the form of evidence maps.

We included 16 good-quality systematic reviews examining biofeedback alone or as an adjunctive intervention. We found clear, consistent evidence across a large number of trials that biofeedback can reduce headache pain and can provide benefit as adjunctive therapy to men experiencing urinary incontinence after a prostatectomy. Consistent evidence across fewer trials suggests biofeedback may improve fecal incontinence and stroke recovery. There is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about effects for most conditions including bruxism, labor pain, and Raynaud's. Biofeedback was not beneficial for urinary incontinence in women, nor for hypertension management, but these conclusions are limited by small sample sizes and methodologic limitations of these studies.

Available evidence suggests that biofeedback is effective for improving urinary incontinence after prostatectomy and headache, and may provide benefit for fecal incontinence and balance and stroke recovery. Further controlled trials across a wide range of conditions are indicated.

Morland LA, Niehaus J, Taft C, Marx BP, Menez U, Mackintosh MA. Using a Mobile Application in the Management of Anger Problems Among Veterans: A Pilot Study. Mil Med. 2016 Sep;181(9):990-5. doi: 10.7205/MILMED-D-15-00293.


This feasibility pilot study evaluated the usability of a mobile application (app), Remote Exercises for Learning Anger and Excitation Management (RELAX), as an adjunct to an anger management treatment delivered to Veterans.


Four Veterans completed pre- and post-treatment measures of anger, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, interpersonal functioning, and app use.


Descriptive results of clinical outcomes are provided. Qualitative data included Veterans' and therapists' feedback regarding the acceptability of the technology, satisfaction with the RELAX app, homework facilitation, and suggestions for improvement. Large reductions in anger, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression symptoms, and improvements in social functioning were evidenced post-treatment. Veterans reported that the RELAX app was helpful and appreciated its functionality.


Our findings support using an app as an adjunct to traditional anger management.

Reneau M. Feasibility and Acceptability of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback in a Group of Veterans with Fibromyalgia. J Altern Complement Med. 2020 Nov;26(11):1025-1031. doi: 10.1089/acm.2020.0071.


To determine the feasibility and acceptability of a heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB) protocol in a focus group of Veterans with fibromyalgia (FM).


A multimethod feasibility and acceptability study. Settings/location: A Veterans Health outpatient pain medicine clinic in the southern United States. Subjects: The researcher enrolled seven women and three men between the ages of 33 and 68 years with a diagnosis of FM. Interventions: Participants practiced HRVB on the emWave2 at home for 20 min twice daily for 7 weeks.

Outcome measures

Feasibility to adhere to the HRVB protocol was measured using the practice frequency and time (minutes) data collected from the emWave2. The author compared the individual reports from participants with the Credibility/Expectancy Questionnaire to measure the acceptability of the intervention. In addition, the principal investigator evaluated data from the Short-form McGill Pain Questionnaire (SFMQ) and the Revised Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQR) at the baseline and weekly study visits for a signal of efficacy for pain control, functional status, and quality of life (QOL).


The majority of participants (80%) expected 50% or more improvement in their pain, and (70%) felt HRVB would reduce their FM-related pain by 50%-80%. The mean daily practice frequency rate was 0.80. The mean practice duration was 19.36 min. Pain score differences from the SFMQ were insignificant preintervention and postintervention. The mean total FIQR scores postintervention improved by 18.1 points.


Findings suggest twice-daily HRVB practice protocol is not feasible. However, 20-min HRVB sessions were feasible and acceptable. Improved FIQR scores post-treatment suggest HRVB may be an effective strategy to improve functional status and QOL for Veterans with FM. ID: Pro00079144.

Schuman DL, Killian MO. Pilot Study of a Single Session Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback Intervention on Veterans' Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2018 Sep 18. doi: 10.1007/s10484-018-9415-3. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 30229543.

Veterans with posttraumatic stress symptoms exhibit reduced heart rate variability characteristic of autonomic nervous system dysregulation. Studies show heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB) is effective in reducing posttraumatic stress symptoms by improving autonomic functioning. Participants in this pilot study were veterans of different war eras with military-related posttraumatic stress symptoms. The study aims were to examine the impact of a single session HRVB intervention on posttraumatic stress symptoms and heart rate variability, test persistence of effects, and determine if veterans would find the intervention acceptable. One group (n = 6) received training in diaphragmatic breathing and heart rate variability biofeedback, augmented by twice-daily practice using a smart phone and breath pacing app. A second group (n = 6) received only a single session of diaphragmatic breathing training. After 4 weeks, participants in the second group (n = 5) received the full intervention. HRVB significantly reduced global posttraumatic stress symptoms, whereas diaphragmatic breathing alone did not. Further, veterans found the approach acceptable, as demonstrated by a high degree of adherence with prescribed practice, low study attrition, and continued use over time. Results of this pilot study warrant further refinement of a protocol utilizing mHealth to treat posttraumatic stress symptoms in military populations.

Tan G, Dao TK, Farmer L, Sutherland RJ, Gevirtz R. Heart rate variability (HRV) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): a pilot study. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2011 Mar;36(1):27-35.

Exposure to combat experiences is associated with increased risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy have garnered a significant amount of empirical support for PTSD treatment; however, they are not universally effective with some patients continuing to struggle with residual PTSD symptoms. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the autonomic nervous system functioning and reflects an individual's ability to adaptively cope with stress. A pilot study was undertaken to determine if veterans with PTSD (as measured by the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale and the PTSD Checklist) would show significantly different HRV prior to an intervention at baseline compared to controls; specifically, to determine whether the HRV among veterans with PTSD is more depressed than that among veterans without PTSD. The study also aimed at assessing the feasibility, acceptability, and potential efficacy of providing HRV biofeedback as a treatment for PTSD. The findings suggest that implementing an HRV biofeedback as a treatment for PTSD is effective, feasible, and acceptable for veterans. Veterans with combat-related PTSD displayed significantly depressed HRV as compared to subjects without PTSD. When the veterans with PTSD were randomly assigned to receive either HRV biofeedback plus treatment as usual (TAU) or just TAU, the results indicated that HRV biofeedback significantly increased the HRV while reducing symptoms of PTSD. However, the TAU had no significant effect on either HRV or symptom reduction. A larger randomized control trial to validate these findings appears warranted.

Tan G, Rintala DH, Jensen MP, Fukui T, Smith D, Williams W. A randomized controlled trial of hypnosis compared with biofeedback for adults with chroniclow back pain. Eur J Pain. 2015 Feb


Chronic low back pain (CLBP) is common and results in significant costs to individuals, families and society. Although some research supports the efficacy of hypnosis for CLBP, we know little about the minimum dose needed to produce meaningful benefits, the roles of home practice and hypnotizability on outcome, or the maintenance of treatment benefits beyond 3 months.


One hundred veterans with CLBP participated in a randomized, four-group design study. The groups were (1) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention without audio recordings for home practice; (2) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings; (3) a two-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings and brief weekly reminder telephone calls; and (4) an eight-session active (biofeedback) control intervention.


Participants in all four groups reported significant pre- to post-treatment improvements in pain intensity, pain interference and sleep quality. The hypnosis groups combined reported significantly more pain intensity reduction than the control group. There was no significant difference among the three hypnosis conditions. Over half of the participants who received hypnosis reported clinically meaningful (≥ 30%) reductions in pain intensity, and they maintained these benefits for at least 6 months after treatment. Neither hypnotizability nor amount of home practice was associated significantly with treatment outcome.


The findings indicate that two sessions of self-hypnosis training with audio recordings for home practice may be as effective as eight sessions of hypnosis treatment. If replicated in other patient samples, the findings have important implications for the application of hypnosis treatment for chronic pain management.

Tan G, Teo I, Srivastava D, Smith D, Smith SL, Williams W, Jensen MP. Improving access to care for women veterans suffering from chronic pain and depression associated with trauma. Pain Med. 2013 Jul;14(7):1010-20.


Access to care has become a priority for the Veterans Administration (VA) health care system as a significant number of veterans enrolled in the VA health care system reside in rural areas. The feasibility and effects of a novel clinical intervention that combined group therapy and biofeedback training was evaluated on women veterans living in rural areas.


The study was conducted at selected community-based outpatient clinics (CBOCs) in Texas. Thirty four women veterans with chronic pain and comorbid depression and/or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were recruited. Five sessions of education/therapy were delivered via telemedicine in combination with daily home practice of a portable biofeedback device (Stress Eraser®, Helicor, New York, NY, USA). Participants responded to self-report questionnaires at baseline, at posttreatment, and at 6-week follow-up. Daily practice logs were also maintained by participants.


The clinical protocol was acceptable, easy to administer, and associated with statistically significant decreases in self-reported pain unpleasantness, pain interference, depressive symptoms, PTSD symptoms, and sleep disturbance at posttreatment. Improvements were maintained at 6-week follow-up. Qualitative analyses indicated that many participants 1) wished to continue to meet as a support group in their respective CBOCs and 2) felt less isolated and more empowered to cope with their problems of daily living as a result of the treatment.


It is feasible to provide treatment to women veterans living in rural areas by utilizing video-teleconferencing technology between larger VA medical centers and facilities at CBOCs in more rural settings. A controlled trial of the intervention is warranted.

Wahbeh H, Oken BS. Peak high-frequency HRV and peak alpha frequency higher in PTSD. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2013 Mar;38(1):57-69.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is difficult to treat and current PTSD treatments are not effective for all people. Despite limited evidence for its efficacy, some clinicians have implemented biofeedback for PTSD treatment. As a first step in constructing an effective biofeedback treatment program, we assessed respiration, electroencephalography (EEG) and heart rate variability (HRV) as potential biofeedback parameters for a future clinical trial. This cross-sectional study included 86 veterans; 59 with and 27 without PTSD. Data were collected on EEG measures, HRV, and respiration rate during an attentive resting state. Measures were analyzed to assess sensitivity to PTSD status and the relationship to PTSD symptoms. Peak alpha frequency was higher in the PTSD group (F(1,84) = 6.14, p = 0.01). Peak high-frequency HRV was lower in the PTSD group (F(2,78) = 26.5, p < 0.00005) when adjusting for respiration rate. All other EEG and HRV measures and respiration were not different between groups. Peak high-frequency HRV and peak alpha frequency are sensitive to PTSD status and may be potential biofeedback parameters for future PTSD clinical trials.