Biofeedback

Written by Brian Krans | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Biofeedback is a type of therapy where sensors attached to your body measure key body functions. Biofeedback is intended to help you learn more about how you body works, so that you can develop better control over certain body functions and address health concerns.

In essence, biofeedback is built on the concept of “mind over matter.” The idea is that, with proper techniques, you can change your health by being mindful of how your body responds to stressors and other stimuli. Chronic stress can have dramatic effects on the body, such as elevating blood pressure, increasing body temperature, and disrupting brain function. Through developing a more effective mental and physical response to stress, biofeedback aims to help a person control body processes like heart rate and blood pressure that were once thought to be completely involuntary.

Types of Biofeedback

The three most common methods of biofeedback include:

  • electromyography (EMG) biofeedback—measures muscle tension as it changes over time
  • thermal or temperature biofeedback—measures body temperature changes over time
  • electroencephalography—measures brain wave activity over time

Other types of biofeedback include galvanic skin response training (which measures the amount of sweat on our body over time) and heart variability biofeedback (which measures your pulse and heart rate).

The Purpose of Biofeedback

Biofeedback appears to be most effective for conditions that are heavily influenced by stress. Some examples of these conditions include learning disorders, eating disorders, bedwetting, and muscles spasms.

According to the Biofeedback Institute of San Francisco, biofeedback can also be effective in addressing numerous physical and psychological disorders, including:

  • depression and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • addiction
  • hypertension and other heart problems
  • pain
  • migraines and chronic headaches
  • social anxiety
  • stress and phobias
  • sexual disorders
  • irritable bowel disorder and other gastrointestinal disorders

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Health Care Policy and Research also recommends biofeedback for treatment of urinary incontinence. Some people prefer biofeedback as a form of treatment for these conditions because it’s noninvasive and doesn’t rely on medications. Others pair biofeedback with more traditional treatment options to improve overall wellness.

How It Works

Electrical sensors that connect to a monitor will be hooked up to your body. The sensors measure one or more indicators of stress, including heart rate, muscle tension, and body temperature (depending on the type of biofeedback). The measurements provide feedback about how the body responds to different stimuli.

A biofeedback therapist can teach you how to lower your heart rate through breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and mental exercises. You can measure the results of these techniques and exercises on the monitor, which encourages more positive reactions and relaxation.

A typical biofeedback session lasts between 30 and 60 minutes. The number of sessions needed to resolve an issue will vary depending on a number of factors, including how quickly you learn to control your physical responses.

There are also commercial biofeedback devices available on the open market, meant for home use. There are devices with handheld monitors, and others that connect to your computer. However, you should be careful of scams—be sure to check with your doctor or another health care professional before purchasing one of these devices, as not all manufacturers are reputable.

The Intended Benefits

Biofeedback is aimed at combating stress through relaxation techniques. This is accomplished by overriding the body’s processes through conscious manipulation of breathing, heart rate, and other “involuntary” functions.

Risks

The Mayo Clinic calls biofeedback “generally safe”—there have been no negative side effects reported. However, biofeedback may not be for everyone. You should consult your doctor before starting this or any other type of complimentary therapy.

Preparing for Biofeedback

Be sure to check your biofeedback therapist’s credentials before starting therapy. You may want to ask about their training and whether or not they accept your health insurance. State laws regulating biofeedback practitioners vary, so check your own state’s regulations before visiting a therapist.

No further preparation is required for a biofeedback session, except for keeping an open mind.

What You Can Expect

Your therapist will help determine which biofeedback technique is right for you, based on your health issues. The success of biofeedback therapy depends on several factors, such as how often you use the techniques you learned in therapy in your daily life.

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