What is biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a tool that helps people gain more control over their bodies. It works by translating subtle physical changes into easy-to-read signals. Through biofeedback, patients can learn how their state of mind affects their circulation, tension, and pain. In the end, they often feel more relaxed and more in control. Biofeedback is often used in combination with other relaxation and stress-reducing approaches, including exercise, meditation, or physical therapy.
How does it work?
A session starts when a therapist attaches sensors to your skin, usually a thermistor that measures the temperature of a finger and/or an electrode that registers the tension in sore muscles. These sensors don’t just spit out numbers. The electrodes, for instance, may be hooked up to a pair of headphones that translate tension into sound; the thermistor can be attached to a flashy computer-generated graph.
The therapist will then help you relax, perhaps by asking you to imagine a quiet, peaceful place or by teaching you a breathing technique. As your mind becomes calm, the temperature in your finger may rise from, say, 88 degrees to 94 degrees, a sign that your circulation is improving. The readings from the electrodes may drop from perhaps 7 microvolts to 3 microvolts, indicating that your muscles are becoming relaxed.
Thanks to biofeedback, you become aware of your ability to enhance your blood flow and release tension, actions that once seemed beyond your control. And after as few as five or six sessions, this ability becomes so ingrained that you can call on it whenever you want, no headphones or blinking lights required.
The health benefits of biofeedback
Biofeedback is especially helpful for conditions that are made worse by stress. That includes headaches, insomnia, digestive problems, back pain, sleep trouble, hypertension, and irritable bowel disorder. It has its limits, however. A 2010 study in the journal Pain Medicine found no sign that biofeedback could help relieve fibromyalgia pain. Claims that biofeedback can treat hyperactivity disorder or autism in children have also yet to be proven.
How safe is it?
Biofeedback is very safe. Before you get started, though, you should check with your doctor to see if there are other, more direct ways to control your symptoms. You can also ask if he or she thinks biofeedback might be worth a try.
How can I find a qualified practitioner?
Many health professionals — including many psychologists, psychiatrists, internists, nurses, and physical therapists — are trained to provide biofeedback therapy. Ask your doctor for a referral, or find someone on your own. Ideally, your practitioner will be certified by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America, which has certain minimal standards for training and education. The Find a Practitioner page on the Institute’s website (www.bcia.org) is a great place to start your search.
University of Maryland Medical Center. Biofeedback. 2009. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/biofeedback-000349.htm
Nelson DV et al. Neurotherapy of fibromyalgia? Pain Medicine. June 2010. 11(6): 912-919.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Biofeedback. 2009. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00201
Kansas State University. Biofeedback. 2010. http://www.k-state.edu/counseling/student/biofeedback.htm