Definition and Overview

Biofeedback is a broad term that covers a series of techniques that aim to control certain involuntary body responses to treat certain diseases, effectively deal with stress and fatigue, and improve a patient’s overall health condition.

The body is composed of many different parts all working together so a person can function normally. The brain is the control center, and everything else receives and sends feedback to the brain through the vast nerve network and neurotransmitters. So when a person tries to grab an object, it sends the message to the brain, which then tells the arms and hands to move, reach for the object, and grasp it.

Meanwhile, some body activities are out of a person’s control. These are considered as involuntary movements. Good examples heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism, and body temperature. These things usually react to the stimulus or the environment they are exposed to.

For instance, if a person runs or exercises, the heartbeat is expected to be much faster than when the body is resting. When a person is under a lot of stress, the body goes into a fight-or-flight mode and releases hormones such as cortisol, which increases heart rate and blood pressure. This keeps someone more alert in case he has to run or move away from the stressor.

Biofeedback’s goal is to give a person more control over the involuntary conditions to improve the quality of life and health, as well as effectively manage and treat certain diseases.

Biofeedback comes from the words “bio,” which means body, and “feedback,” which can be obtained once the body is connected to a machine that monitors a person’s vital signs. This allows the therapist and the patient to accurately read the feedback in real time. These machines can include thermal (skin temperature), neurofeedback (brainwave activity), and electromyography (muscle tension).

Common techniques associated with biofeedback are:

  • Mindfulness
  • Proper breathing
  • Visualization
  • Muscle relaxation

Who Is It For and Expected Results

Biofeedback therapy is ideal for:

  • Anyone who is under a lot of stress
  • People who suffer from diseases characterized by certain involuntary movements such as urinary continence, muscle spasm, migraine, or asthma
  • People whose medications are not working
  • Men and women who are not afraid to undergo the procedure with equipment attached

This can also be used for those who are under a lot of pain, whether recurrent, chronic, or acute. These include patients who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.

Biofeedback can also be helpful to athletes and physically active individuals as their bodies are constantly exposed to muscle tightening, tears, worn ligaments, and pain.

The therapy has also been proven to be effective even for those who are suffering from mental health issues including but not limited to depression, bipolar disorder, and severe anxiety. The therapy helps the patient to become less dependent on their medications.

Even if biofeedback has been around for some time, experts are still not sure how or why it works. Nevertheless, many of those who have gone through it claim that:

  • The procedure allows them to gain more control over their health.
  • They become less dependent on medications.
  • The procedure is 100% safe and is a great alternative to surgery and medication.

How Does It Work?

Patients who want to try biofeedback to alleviate pain, improve their health, or manage certain diseases should begin by looking for the right therapist.

As of today, there’s no standard certification process for biofeedback therapists, so anyone can practice it. However, the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback Society strongly recommends finding someone who is certified by (BCIA) Biofeedback Certification International Alliance. The organization can also help a patient find an active practitioner within his or her area.

Certified therapists have extensive training, background, and some are even licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers. However, practicing these professions doesn’t make one a biofeedback therapist. It does need a special type of training and experience.

Therapists have different approaches to biofeedback since the therapy should be customized according to the patient’s response to the techniques.

But usually, the procedure starts with the person being connected to biofeedback machines, which come in different forms and functions. Electrodes are attached to the skin, which then receive the feedback interpreted by these machines.

Depending on the feedback, the therapist begins by helping the patient learn to control the vital signs such as the heartbeat.

The therapy is performed per session, and there’s no limit as to how many as it depends on the disease being managed or treated, the patient’s receptiveness to the process, and the body’s natural reaction to the therapy, among others. Normally, it takes at least eight sessions with each lasting for around an hour to achieve the desired results.

Risks and Complications

Biofeedback therapy is safe. It can be recommended to children and teens, as well as pregnant women.

But there are some issues associated with biofeedback. One, it’s not covered by health insurance since it’s considered as an alternative and not a standard treatment. This may prevent someone from continuing with the therapy. Although biofeedback can be learned so the patient doesn’t have to go to a therapist anymore, it is time-consuming.

Second, it works through trial and error. Again, it depends on many factors, such as the body’s response, which is still largely involuntary. Thus, it may take a few sessions before a patient can start feeling the desired results. Sometimes it can take so long that the patient can end up feeling more frustrated and stressed, which may only worsen his or her health condition. There are also instances when it doesn’t work at all.

Third, there are very limited literatures about it, which can make certain people skeptical about the therapy. Moreover, since it’s not as highly regulated as other professions, it’s also possible that the patient picks an inexperienced or worse a fake practitioner.

Lately, too, certain companies sell biofeedback kits that can be used at home. While some of them may work, others are simply products of marketing hype.

References:

  • Haas DJ. Complementary and alternative medicine. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease Pathophysiology/Diagnosis/Management. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 127.

  • Lumpkin M, Rakel D. Relaxation techniques. In: Rakel D, ed. Integrative Medicine. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 93.

  • Magis D, Schoenen J. Treatment of migraine: update on new therapies. Curr Opin Neuro. 2011;24(3):203-210.

  • Payne CK. Conservative management of urinary incontinence: behavioral and pelvic floor therapy, urethral and pelvic devices. In: Wein AJ, Kavoussi LR, Novick AC, et al., eds. Campbell-Walsh Urology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 69.

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