Biofeedback is the use of electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function in order to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function.
This specialized type of training allows people to gain control over physiological reactions that are ordinarily unconscious and automatic. Malfunctions in theses automatic responses contribute to a wide variety of medical problems. In study after study, biofeedback has shown the effectiveness to help bring such counter-productive reactions back into line, providing significant relief for many of the people who try it.
Although it is not a sure cure, biofeedback helps many people with chronic pain, including the pain of arthritis, muscle spasms and headache (both migraine and tension headache). It can reduce tension and anxiety, combat chronic insomnia and fatigue, alleviate depression, reduce hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, and even help overcome alcoholism and drug addiction. Some people have found it helpful for controlling high blood pressure or an abnormal heart rate. It is also useful for retraining, reconditioning, and strengthening muscles after an accident or surgery, restoring loss of control due to pain or nerve damage, and overcoming urinary (or bowel) incontinence. For asthmatics, biofeedback offers the possibility of controlling bronchial spasms and reducing the severity of attacks. Many victims of Raynaud's disease (periodic loss of circulation in the fingers) have been able to rectify the problem through biofeedback.
The technique has helped others deal with digestive disorders such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, acidity, dysfunction of the esophagus and difficulty swallowing. Biofeedback is under study as a potential aid in the treatment of a number of other ailments as well, although results are more mixed. It may help relax the muscles in temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ). It appears to reduce the severity and frequency of seizures in some, though not all, epileptics. It can help ease the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. It has been tried as a remedy for chronic constipation, motion sickness and the controllable tics and compulsions of Tourette syndrome.
Procedure of Treatment
Biofeedback is not a passive treatment. It requires your intensive participation as you learn to control such normally involuntary (autonomic) functions as heart rate, blood pressure, brain waves, skin temperature, muscle tension, breathing and digestion. At the first session, you'll be asked a few questions about your own health and that of family members. The biofeedback therapist will then apply sensors to various points on your body. The location depends on the problem that needs treatment. If you have migraines, sleep problems and mood disorders, for example, the electrodes are often attached to your scalp; to treat heart problems and muscle tension, they will be placed on your skin. Other possible sites include the hands, feet or fingers.
The sensors are connected to a computer, a polygraph or another piece of monitoring equipment that provides instant feedback to you on the function you're trying to control, such as the tension in a particular set of involuntary muscles or circulation to a specific part of the body. Some biofeedback machines signal changes graphically on a computer display, other beep, buzz or blink to indicate the strength or level of the function you're targeting. The therapist will teach you mental or physical exercises that can help you affect the function that is causing a problem. You can easily gauge your success by noting any changes in the intensity, volume or speed of the signals from the machine. Gradually, you will learn to associate successful thoughts and actions with the desired change in your involuntary responses. Once you have thoroughly learned an effective pattern of actions, you'll be able to assert control without the aid of the feedback device.
Among the feedback instruments you are most likely to encounter are the following:
Electromyographs(EMGs) measures muscle tension. Therapists use them to relieve muscle stiffness, treat incontinence and recondition injured muscles.
Skin temperature gauges show changes in the amount of heat given off by the skin, a measurement that indicates any change in blood flow. These gauges are used in the treatment of Raynaud's disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, and migraines.
Galvanic skin response sensors(GSRs) use the amount of swear you produce under stress to measure the conductivity of your skin. They are often used to reduce anxiety.
Electroencephalographs(EEGs) measure brain-wave activity. Conditions that may benefit from training on these machines include attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, tooth grinding, head injuries and depression (including bipolar depression and seasonal affective disorder).
Electrocardiographs(ECGs) monitor the heart rate and may be useful in relieving on overly rapid heartbeat and controlling high blood pressure.
Respiration feedback devices concentrate on the rate, rhythm and type of breathing to help lessen symptoms of asthma, anxiety, and hyperventilation and promote relaxation. Along with biofeedback training, the therapist may also give you instruction in deep breathing, meditation, visualization, and muscle relaxation-all of which may aid in relieving stress-related symptoms.
Treatment Time: Sessions usually last between 30 minutes and one hour.
Treatment Frequency: In most cases, people can learn to raise or lower their heart rate, relax specific muscles, lower blood pressure, and control other function in eight to ten sessions. Some problems, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, take longer-sometimes up to 40 sessions. Depending on the severity of the problem and the technique uses, therapists suggest you attend one to five sessions per week.
Biofeedback is a 'mind over matter' form of therapy that has only recently begun to filter into mainstream medicine. Although ancient Greek, Chinese and Indian healers were convinced that the mind could influence the body, either causing illness or curing disease, the concept fell into disrepute as Western medicine began to discover the infectious agents and chemical malfunctions that lie at the root of so many familiar ailments. It was only when modern instrumentations made it possible to measure subtle changes in unconscious physical reactions that medicine once more turned its attention to the mind-body connection. Although biofeedback promises to remedy certain ailments through disciplined mental effort, it has nothing in common with other forms of mind-body therapy such as meditation and yoga. It does not rely on maintenance of some sort of theoretical balance or harmony in order to achieve its effects. Instead, it seeks control over specific, measurable physiological reactions that have somehow gone awry. As such, it can prove especially useful for any disorder caused or aggravated by involuntary muscular tension or tightening. Like other forms of mind-body therapy, it is entirely useless for fighting infections, curing cancer, relieving allergies or healing injuries.
Who Should Avoid This Therapy?
If you use a pacemaker or have a severe heart disorder, check with your doctor before using a biofeedback device that measures your perspiration output. These machines use a small amount of electricity to produce readings and, even though no problems have been reported to date, there is a chance that they may affect your pacemaker or damage your heart.
Like other mind-body forms of therapy, biofeedback is notably free of side effects. Indeed, it is often turned to by people seeking a respite from the side effects of conventional medicines.