Biofeedback, a therapeutic technique that trains the patient to control normally involuntary physiological processes, is used in the treatment of many common stress-related conditions. Biofeedback teaches the patient to apply conscious control to breathing, blood pressure, heart rate in an effort to promote deep relaxation and improve health.
Benefits of Biofeedback
Biofeedback has several advantages over other medical treatments. It is non-invasive and has no side effects. Also, it is frequently effective for patients who have not had success with prescription medication. In many cases, biofeedback therapy reduces, or even eliminates, the need for medication. By learning biofeedback techniques, patients assume some real control over their own bodily processes and their health.
Reasons for Biofeedback
Although researchers have not determined exactly how biofeedback works, they do know that it promotes relaxation. While biofeedback is not usually a primary treatment method, it is frequently employed to complement other medical treatments. It has been used to treat a variety of physical and mental health conditions, including:
- Migraine headaches
- Hot flashes
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Chronic pain
- High blood pressure
- Urinary incontinence
- Sexual disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- High blood pressure
- Raynaud’s disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Biofeedback Treatment Procedure
Biofeedback involves placing electrical sensors on the skin to monitor physiological stress responses. The electrical sensors send signals to a monitor, which displays or emits a sound, image or flash of light in response. By watching the monitor, the patient learns to relax in a way that effect the images or sounds produced. The goal is to bring the following stress responses under the patient’s control:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Skin temperature
- Muscle activity
A biofeedback therapist teaches focused relaxation exercises in which the patient focuses on physical symptoms, attempting to diminish or eliminate them through deep relaxation. For example, a patient with a severe headache might use a relaxation technique to calm brainwaves. Several different relaxation exercises are used in biofeedback therapy, including:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Guided imagery
- Mindfulness meditation
A biofeedback therapy session typically lasts about 30 minutes. In most cases, benefits of treatment are apparent after 10 sessions. Blood pressure is particularly difficult to treat with biofeedback and may take as many as 20 sessions for improvement to be noted.
The devices used to assist in biofeedback each target a different aspect of the stress response.
Electrodermal Activity, or EDA, works on the body’s skin response to stress. It measures sweating and is often used when the goal is the reduction of anxiety or pain.
Like the EDA, thermal equipment measures skin response, but in this case is focused on skin temperature. This device is particularly helpful in treating headaches and Raynaud’s disease, a condition in which the extremities become dangerously cold.
An electromyogram, or EMG, measures activity and tension in the muscles. This biofeedback technique is helpful in muscle retraining after injury, anxiety disorders, chronic back pain and incontinence.
Neurofeedback or Electroencephalography (EEG)
This type of treatment measures and records brain waves. It has been found to be effective in some cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It can also reduce episode frequency of epilepsy and other seizural disorders
Heart Rate Variability (HRA)
Heart rate variability, or HRA, measures the patient’s heart rate. It is used to help correct heart arrhythmias, and to reduce symptoms of anxiety, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Considerations of Biofeedback
Although biofeedback is considered safe, it may not be appropriate for everyone. Not all patients respond equally well to treatment and for some the treatment may not be effective at all. Nonetheless, there is much scientific evidence that biofeedback can help patients relieve the severity or frequency of symptoms, even if they are not able to eliminate them entirely, and that biofeedback can reduce the need for medication. There is also evidence that patients who use biofeedback may learn to recognize early signs of distress and avert an anxiety attack, migraine, asthma attack or seizure.