Many forms of alternative and complementary medicine believe that the mind is powerful enough to change the body. Biofeedback or biofeedback training is a method of teaching your mind how to control physical symptoms.
Three major professional biofeedback organizations— the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB), Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA) and International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR)—came together in 2008 to establish the following definition of biofeedback:
“Biofeedback is a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance. Precise instruments measure physiological activity such as brainwaves, heart function, breathing, muscle activity and skin temperature. These instruments rapidly and accurately “feed back” information to the user. The presentation of this information—often in conjunction with changes in thinking, emotions, and behaviour— supports desired physiological changes. Over time, these changes can endure without continued use of an instrument.”
There are six major types of biofeedback sensors that each monitor a different physical action.
Measures: temperature, blood flow to the skin
Sensor location: on the hands or feet
Treats: headache, high blood pressure, Raynaud’s disease and swelling
Measures: level of skin moisture caused by sweating
Sensor location: around the fingers or on the palm and wrist
Treats: excessive sweating, high blood pressure
Measures: electrical activity that causes skeletal muscle contraction
Sensor location: over skeletal muscles
Treats: anxiety, asthma, cerebral palsy, fecal and urinary incontinence, headache, high blood pressure, pain involving the lower back, pelvic muscles and temporomandibular joint, and paralysis and muscle weakness due to peripheral nerve injury and stroke
Electrocardiograph and photoplethysmograph
Measures: heart rate and heart rate variability
Sensor location: on the chest and lower torso or on the wrists (electrocardiograph) and on fingers or earlobes (photoplethysmograph)
Treats: asthma, depression, high blood pressure and unexplained abdominal pain
Measures: breathing patterns and respiration rate
Sensor location: bands placed around the abdomen and chest
Treats: anxiety, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and high blood pressure
Measures: the brain’s electrical activity
Sensor location: on the scalp
Treats: Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), alcoholism/substance abuse, epilepsy, headache and traumatic brain injury
*All of these modalities can also be used to help athletes and others reach optimal performance.
Conditions that can be treated with biofeedback are not limited to those listed above. Others include arthritis, chest pain, constipation, hyperventilation, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, various kinds of pain and vulvar vestibulitis.
Once the biofeedback sensors are placed on the body, the machine will convey information on the physiological activities that are always going on in the body, but of which we are not actively aware. The machine will present signals such as blinking lights or beeping when certain processes take place, such as muscles tensing, heart rate increasing, etc. and the patient can then teach the body how to control those responses.
Depending on the condition being treated, the number of treatments necessary varies from 8-12 sessions total for some mental and medical problems to intensive treatment schedules of 2-3 sessions per week for 30-60 sessions for issues like epilepsy, alcoholism and ADHD. Costs can range from $60 to $150 per one hour session.
Biofeedback has been developed as a treatment method since the 1960s. These days there are many different professionals that may use biofeedback with their patients, including physiologists, kinesiologists and psychologists, but the BCIA recommends finding a practitioner that is certified under their standards of knowledge, training and experience. Anyone can claim to offer biofeedback services and it can be difficult to determine whom and which devices are legitimate. If a device does not use medically recognized physiological sensing technologies or bypasses the individual’s internal controls, offering instead to impart energy through frequencies directed back into the body, it is not biofeedback as defined in this article.
Rather than replacing other medical treatments, biofeedback should be thought of as a supplement and may be even more effective in conjunction with other therapies.
By Sarah Stefanson