Using your mind to improve your health

Biofeedback is a technique you can use to learn to control your body's physiologic functions, such as your heart rate and your stress response. Biofeedback encompasses many scientifically based, self-therapeutic techniques that have proved successful when used by people suffering from a variety of illnesses and disorders. With biofeedback, you're connected to electrical sensors that help you receive information (feedback) about your body (bio). By watching an instrument give continuous measurements of a bodily function, a person can experiment with different mind-body techniques and get immediate feedback on the physical effects. This feedback helps you focus on making subtle changes in your body, such as relaxing certain muscles or changing your heart rate, to achieve the results you want, such as reducing pain or lowering blood pressure. With practice under the care and guidance of a trained professional, you can learn to alter your heart rate, modulate your respiration, or increase skin temperature in parts of your body, ultimately learning to control your physiological reactions in the treatment of your disorders. In essence, biofeedback gives you the power to use your thoughts to control your body, often to improve a health condition or physical performance.

Types of biofeedback

There are several different biofeedback methods which may be combined with a number of mind-body techniques. Determining the method that's right for you depends on your health problems and goals. Biofeedback methods include:
• Breathing - During respiratory biofeedback, bands are placed around your abdomen and chest to monitor your breathing pattern and respiration rate. Re-training your breathing pattern can help alleviate stress, reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure.
• Heart rate - This type of biofeedback uses a finger sensor with a device called a photoplethysmograph to measure your heart rate and heart rate variability. Lowering your heart rate is accomplished through your parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes rest, relaxation, and digestion, helping alleviate anxiety and reducing blood pressure.
• Muscle - This method of biofeedback involves placing sensors over your skeletal muscles and using electromyography (EMG) to monitor the electrical activity that causes muscle contraction. Musculoskeletal pain and headaches can be relieved when you learn to techniques to relax muscles that contribute to these disorders.
• Sweat glands - Sensors attached around your fingers with an electrodermograph (EDG) measure the activity of your sweat glands and the amount of perspiration on your skin, a direct outcome of anxiety, stress, and exertion.
• Temperature - Sensors attached to your fingers detect changes in temperature as a consequence of your blood flow to your skin. Because your temperature often drops when you're under stress, learning relaxation techniques that increase hand temperature help reduce stress and anxiety.

What conditions can biofeedback therapy help treat?

Biofeedback, sometimes called biofeedback training, is used to help manage many physical and mental health issues, including:
• Anxiety or stress
• Asthma
• Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
• Chemotherapy side effects
• Chronic pain
• Constipation
• Fecal incontinence
• Fibromyalgia
• Headache
• High blood pressure
• Irritable bowel syndrome
• Motion sickness
• Raynaud's disease
• Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
• Stroke
• Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
• Urinary incontinence

Why do Biofeedback training?

Biofeedback appeals to people for a variety of reasons:
• It's noninvasive.
• It might reduce or eliminate the need for medications.
• It might be a treatment alternative for those who can't tolerate medications.
• It might be an option when medications haven't worked well.
• It might be an alternative to medications for some conditions during pregnancy.
• It helps people take charge of their health.

What should you expect during a biofeedback appointment?

During a biofeedback session, a therapist attaches electrical sensors to different parts of your body. These sensors monitor your body's physiological state, such as skin temperature, muscle tension, heart rate and breathing. This information is fed back to you via cues, such as a beeping sound, a flashing light, changes on a graph, or changes in a game-like setting, which are displayed on a video screen. You will interact with these cues to learn to control the physiologic parameter being monitored. The feedback and interaction teaches you to change or control your body's physiological reactions by changing your thoughts, emotions or behavior. In turn, this can help the condition for which you sought treatment.

A typical biofeedback session lasts 30, 60, or 90 minutes. The length and number of sessions are determined by your condition and how quickly you learn to control your physical responses. You might need at least 8 to 10 weekly sessions, and therefore should discuss any financial or time constraints with the provider. Biofeedback may not be covered by your insurance.