Mind Over Matter: How Biofeedback Can Help
Biofeedback is an effective mind/body technique that can help you gain control of your body's responses to stress, anxiety and even pain. Read ...

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Mind Over Matter: How Biofeedback Can Help

John suffered from frequent headaches and bouts of anxiety. He wanted to avoid taking medication, so his doctor suggested he try biofeedback.

Biofeedback is a form of complementary medicine. It may help you gain control of your body's responses to stress, anxiety and even pain. Using "mind over matter" techniques, it can help you ease symptoms by using your body's signals. By use of these body signals and learning calming techniques, you can teach yourself how to manage your condition. You can use biofeedback to help manage many physical and mental health problems.

Biofeedback has become an accepted complementary therapy in most hospitals, clinics, hospices and offices. Many doctors, nurses, chiropractors, social workers and even dentists use it in their practice. It can be used alone or with other forms of treatment.

How it works
The biofeedback technique uses special machines that let you essentially "see" or "hear" activity inside your body. Sensors on the machines are attached to different parts of your body. The sensors act as a type of internal mirror to monitor physical functions, such as:

  • Skin temperature
  • Muscle tension
  • Brain activity
  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Sweat gland activity

Through these sensors, the machines send a variety of visual or audio "feedback" signals. One machine, for example, picks up electrical signals in the muscles and sends you a message. For instance, a light bulb may flash every time muscles get tense (like during a tension headache).

This feedback lets you relate your body's response (such as headache pain) with certain physical functions, such as tense muscles. Once you know what triggers your symptom, you can start to employ positive methods of dealing with that muscle tension or stress. This might include breathing exercises, progressive relaxation techniques, guided imagery or meditations.

Your ultimate goal is to recognize body response signals on your own, outside the therapist's office and without the use of equipment.

A typical biofeedback session will last 30 to 60 minutes. You may need 10 to 30 sessions or more. Once you learn the technique, you can use this therapy all the time. The training, much like learning to type or ride a bike, usually stays with you for life.

Biofeedback and your health
Biofeedback is used as a tool in the treatment of many conditions, most commonly for:

  • Chronic migraine and tension headaches
  • Pain management
  • Some digestive system disorders
  • Chronic insomnia
  • Raynaud's disease (a circulatory disorder that causes uncomfortably cold hands)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Anxiety and other nervous system disorders

Biofeedback has also been shown to reduce or eliminate the need for medication in some people with certain disorders. This doesn't work for everyone. Be sure to work together with your doctor on this. Never stop taking any medication without your doctor's advice and instructions.

Types of biofeedback
Your doctor or therapist may use several different techniques to gather information. These include:

  • Electromyogram (EMG). This uses electrodes to measure muscle tension. EMG is mainly used to promote the relaxation of muscles involved in backaches, headaches and neck pain.
  • Temperature biofeedback. This uses sensors to measure your skin temperature, which can drop when you are under stress. It can help in treating some circulatory disorders or reducing the frequency of headaches.
  • Galvanic skin response training. Skin perspiration is a sign of anxiety. This information can be useful in treating disorders such as phobias, anxiety and stuttering. This has been extremely helpful with those who experience stage fright or anxiety when speaking in public.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG). The EEG monitors the activity of brain waves linked to different mental states, such as wakefulness, relaxation and sleep. This often helps in treating insomnia.

Biofeedback is generally considered safe. It should be used with caution, though, if you have chronic depression or a major mental health disorder. The therapy may interfere with some medications, such as insulin. Patients with diabetes should exercise extra caution.

Always check with your doctor first to see whether biofeedback therapy is a suitable complementary treatment for you. Be sure that you are working with a therapist who has extensive training in biofeedback.
By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Contributing Nutritionist
Created on 02/02/2009
Updated on 06/01/2012
  • Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Anxiety.
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Complementary therapies: Biofeedback.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Headaches and CAM.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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