An Introduction to Biofeedback

By Harold Cohen, Ph.D.

Most people think that they can't control blood pressure, body temperature, brain waves, digestion, muscle tension, heart rate, and the like. And most of the time, they're right; these basic bodily functions are normally regulated automatically by the nervous system. Usually, you don't even notice them. But it turns out that — with biofeedback training — you can change these normally involuntary functions at will!

Suppose that you're trying to control your blood pressure. A therapist hooks you up with electronic sensors to a machine (see Table) that can measure blood pressure and then translate the reading into a picture or sound (the feedback). As you think different thoughts, you observe the changes in the feedback (usually a series of tones or a computerized image).

Eventually, your mind figures out what you have to do to get your blood pressure into the normal range — and how to make that happen even in the real world. The following table lays out the most common forms of biofeedback and the conditions they're used to treat.


Common Types Of Biofeedback

Type What's Measured Basic Method Used For

Brain wave Electrical activity in the brain Sensors placed on scalp Alcohol and drug addition, brain damage, epilepsy, hyperactivity, insomnia

Breathing Breath rate, rhythm, volume, and location Sensors around chest and abdomen or around mouth and nose Anxiety, asthma, hyperventilation

Electrodermal response Sweat gland activity Sensors placed on the muscle group in question Anxiety, overactive sweat glands

Electro-
myography
Muscle spasms and tension May help treat rheumatoid arthritis, premenstrual syndrome, menstrual cramps, and menopausal symptoms Incontinence, muscle pain, physical rehabilitation, stress, teeth grinding (TMJ), tension headaches, torticollis ("wry neck")

Finger Pulse Pulse rate and amount of blood in each pulse (the higher these are, the more wired your autonomic nervous system is) Sensor attached to a finger Anxiety, irregular heartbeat, hypertension

Skin temperature (also called thermal biofeedback) Blood flow changes (the more blood flows, the warmer the skin) Temperature sensor (thermistor) taped to finger Anxiety, hypertension, migraines, Raynaud's disease

Biofeedback can even help relieve problems you aren't directly trying to alleviate. If you find a way to control your skin temperature or blood pressure, for example, you may discover that other problems — especially those that stemmed from an overactive autonomic nervous system — disappear, too! Some people also find themselves feeling more in control of their health, and more hopeful about life in general.

In some cases — especially stress reduction, Raynaud's disease, and certain types of headaches and other pain — biofeedback may be the treatment of choice. If you need to control asthma, diabetes, or epilepsy; recondition muscles; or recover from stroke, biofeedback may well be a useful addition to your overall treatment plan.

But don’t try to be your own therapist by purchasing biofeedback devices on your own. Unless you have very specific instructions from a professional therapist on how to use these gizmos, you’ll only waste your time and money because most of these devices are so complicated to figure out that they usually end up left in the back of the dresser drawer.

Cautions

Unless you panic during deep relaxation or just get bugged by electronic blips and beeps, don’t expect any problem from biofeedback. The instruments are safe, and the electricity rarely enters your body — except during electrodermal biofeedback (the kind that measures sweat), and the amount of current is minuscule. Just to be cautious, though; check with your doctor if you have a serious heart condition or an implanted pacemaker (or other implanted electronic device) before using this form of biofeedback.

If you’re taking any medications for your condition, checking with your doctor after therapy begins is a good idea. If biofeedback works for you, you may need to reduce your dosage, but only you and your doctor will know for sure.

How Long Does it Take to See Results from Biofeedback?

How long you’ll have to wait for results of biofeedback depends on many factors, including your age, general health, ailment, and overall motivation. At the very least, biofeedback will take at least a few office sessions (each lasting 30 to 60 minutes) to help simple problems — and many ailments will require dozens of sessions. One fact is clear: The more you practice, the quicker you’ll achieve desired results. Practicing at home can even reduce the number of office sessions you need. If you can, talk to other people that have used biofeedback successfully; you may lose heart on your own.

You’re the one who does the real work in making biofeedback heal you. But you will need a qualified therapist to hook you up to the equipment every time, answer your questions, monitor your progress, and offer suggestions. You can find this type of therapist in many different fields of health care — including medicine, nursing, psychology, social work, physical and occupational therapy, and so on.

Finding someone who knows what they’re doing may take a little more legwork. No formal licensing is available for biofeedback therapists, but certification from the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America is a bare minimum requirement. Your best bet is to make sure that the therapists have all the standard training and licensing in their respective fields — and that they have some (successful!) experience using biofeedback on other people with your disorder.

Biofeedback can cost you — sessions can run up to about $150, and in most cases you’ll need quite a few of them. The good news, though, is that private insurers will often help pay, provided that you’re using the biofeedback for a reimbursable disorder.

Helpful Tip! Asking your therapist to estimate the number of treatments you’ll need can help keep your expectations realistic — and give you a benchmark by which to decide that it’s time to put your time and money elsewhere.

 

APA Reference
Cohen, H. (2006). An Introduction to Biofeedback. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/an-introduction-to-biofeedback/000226
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

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