Some health problems aren't caused by invading microbes or rogue malignant cells, but by physiology gone awry. Muscles contract or loosen when they shouldn't hearts race and breathing quickens, fueling anxiety... blood vessels tighten, driving up blood pressure. Our own bodies are working against us.

What can we do? Biofeedback helps us gain control of our bodies with the aid of technology. It uses electrical sensors, attached to different parts of the body, to monitor physiological activity, such as skin temperature, sweat gland activity, muscle tension and/or heart rate.

Readings of these measurements are displayed or "fed back" to patients on a monitor in the form of cues such as beeps or flashing lights). This process enables patients to become aware of their bodies' physiological activity, especially involuntary activity that they are not usually aware of, including feeling certain muscles or heart rate. They can then learn how to use thoughts to control the body.

What's new: Advances in technology have made biofeedback more precise, improving treatments for conditions ranging from arthritis and high blood pressure to anxiety and insomnia.

How biofeedback can help you…

Mental/Behavioral Issues

With a type of biofeedback known as neurofeedback, electrodes are placed on the scalp to monitor brain activity. Participants can then see how their states of mind increase certain brain waves and decrease others and learn to achieve normal patterns. Neurofeedback can help patients with

  • Anxiety. Participants learn to recognize when they are producing brain patterns that reflect an anxious state. Once aware of these physiological responses, they learn how to relax during anxious periods.
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers have found that the brain waves of people with ADHD tend to be mostly slow frequency, indicating a sleepy or daydreaming state, rather than high frequency, which indicates an alert state. With the help of neurofeedback, adults and children with ADHD learn to regulate their brain wave patterns.
  • Insomnia. Some sleeping problems are believed to be caused by hyperarousal that keeps the mind active while the body is trying to sleep. Using neurofeedback, patients learn to decrease that arousal. For insomnia due to anxiety, stress and/or depression, biofeedback can be used with relaxation techniques.

Neurofeedback has also been found to help other conditions, such as epilepsy, depression, brain injury and learning problems.

Heart Function

A type of biofeedback known as heart rate variability (HRV) helps patients learn to control their heart rates, which can improve…

  • High blood pressure. Chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure. HRV teaches participants optimal breathing patterns that help regulate heart rhythms and, in turn, lower blood pressure.

In addition to HRV, other relaxation techniques (including yoga help bring down blood pressure. Biofeedback that tracks skin temperature or sweat gland activity helps patients recognize physiological responses to stress and prompts them to begin relaxation techniques.

Pain Reduction

  • Arthritis. In an analysis of 25 studies in Arthritis Rheumatology, biofeedback was shown to reduce arthritic pain and disability. Exactly how biofeedback helps isn't clear. But by increasing blood flow to the joints, biofeedback may reduce inflammation. Muscle relaxation and stress control also could muffle the perception of pain intensity.
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. The headache, facial pain and/or ear pain of TMJ can be severe and hard to treat. Studies have shown that biofeedback can help TMJ by reducing tension in the muscles around the jaw joints and by promoting general relaxation.

Muscle Training

  • Electromyography biofeedback, which measures muscle tension, can help people gain control over muscles that no longer function properly. It can help..
  • Chronic constipation. A new application of biofeedback may help chronic constipation caused by an inability to synchronize bowel and anal muscles properly. In a recent study, nearly 80% of adults with chronic constipation improved substantially with biofeedback-assisted retraining, compared with 22% who took laxatives.
  • Urinary incontinence. Men, women and children all can be affected by incontinence. This problem occurs when the pelvic-floor muscles are poorly controlled or have grown too weak to keep the bladder closed.

By teaching individuals how to contract, relax and strengthen the proper muscles (frequently with the help of exercises), biofeedback can often correct the problem. Some people start to see results after just one or two biofeedback sessions.

  • Physical rehabilitation. Biofeedback can help those who have suffered a stroke, brain injury or spinal cord injury regain use of muscles that have lost functional ability. With sensors tracking even the tiniest signs of contraction and relaxation, patients gradually relearn how to use these muscles.

Biofeedback Basics

Depending on the individual, about eight to 12 biofeedback sessions are needed for medical problems such as arthritis and high blood pressure. Biofeedback for such conditions as anxiety and insomnia sometimes requires 30 to 50 sessions. There are no side effects with biofeedback, and it generally is safe for everyone.

Finding A Practitioner

If you are interested in biofeedback, ask your doctor whether it might help you. One-hour biofeedback sessions cost $60 to $150. Some insurance companies pay for biofeedback therapy.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in