What is it?
Biofeedback is a method used to measure and report biological information about a person so he or she can consciously control normally unconscious body functions. This concept is relatively new in the West. Western scientists previously thought functions, such as heart rate, digestion, blood pressure, brain waves, and muscle tension could not be consciously controlled. Other cultures have long used yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi to achieve these types of effects. Biofeedback is unique because it uses electronic technology to provide instant feedback so a person can know when they are achieving the desired change.
Biofeedback uses visual (sight) or auditory (sound) signals to indicate muscle tension or a specific autonomic nervous system activity. As the changes occur, the person being monitored can view these measurements on a screen or a meter or hear the change in pitch as it is occurring. These instruments have been used to measure skin temperature, perspiration, heart rate, muscle tension, and brain waves. This allows the patient to adjust their behavior, posture, or breathing and watch the effects of these changes on the body function they are monitoring. The main benefit is that biofeedback provides a person with information about their physiological functioning that was previously unavailable.
A biofeedback session involves connecting the patient to the machine sensors and monitoring the function being evaluated. For example, a patient with migraine headaches would have electrodes attached to their head. These sensors are connected to a monitoring device or a computer and the process begins. The therapist will teach mental or physical techniques to assist the patient in changing the body functions being measured.
The patient can easily notice their success or failure in changing their heart rate or skin temperature by noting any changes in the pitch or volume or by a visual indicator on the machine. This process is repeated until the patient can consistently get the desired results. Eventually, the patient can make these changes without the help of the monitoring device so they can do it whenever and wherever needed.
Biofeedback has been used to prevent a variety of conditions. Stress-related problems, such as hypertension, ulcers, and migraine headaches have responded to biofeedback. Other problems that may benefit from biofeedback are sleep disorders, attention deficit disorder, posture problems, incontinence, back pain, and gastrointestinal disorders. It has also been used to treat muscle pain, asthma, tinnitus, fatigue, and cerebral palsy. Using this technique to reduce stress has helped cancer, acquired immunodeficicency syndrome (AIDS), and other chronically ill patients achieve better results when combined with other treatments. Severe structural injuries, such as slipped disks and broken bones, are conditions when biofeedback does not provide any benefit.
Most biofeedback therapists are trained as psychologists. The therapist should be certified by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America. Look for someone who has been successful treating people with problems similar to yours. There are few side effects from biofeedback. Machines measuring perspiration (sweat) emit a small electrical current so people with heart conditions or a pacemaker should be cautious.
For more information:
1. Burton Goldberg Group: Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide. Future Medicine Publishing, Puyallup, WA; 1994:37-45.
2. Cassileth BR: The Alternative Medicine Handbook, 1st ed. WW Norton & Company, NY, NY; 1998:16-21.
3. Inglis B & West R: The Alternative Health Guide. Alfred A. Knopf, NY, NY; 1983: 120-132.
4. Kastner MA: Alternative Healing: The Complete A to Z Guide to Over 160 Different Alternative Therapies. Halcyon Publishing, La Mesa, CA; 1993:3-7.
5. Woodham A & Peters D: Encyclopedia of Healing Therapies, 1st ed. Dorling Kindersley, NY, NY; 1997:90-94.
Last Updated: 1/4/2011