Articles : What is Biofeedback?

By: Dr. Satya Bellerose

Most people have heard of biofeedback but don't really know what it involves. Biofeedback started in 1969 and has evolved enormously in the last 35 years. Biofeedback simply means using information from the body to learn to control and change something in the body. A very simple form of biofeedback is a mirror. A mirror may show you that your posture is slumped; you could use that information to straighten and improve your posture.

Biofeedback typically gives information about your body that isn't normally available. For example, sensors can read how much muscle tension you are carrying and display it on a computer screen. Muscle tension increases when a muscle is used and then should rapidly return to a resting level. But this return to relaxation does not occur in those with chronic muscle tension. Biofeedback can treat those with headaches, teeth clenching, or other types of muscle pain. The biofeedback specialist would put small sensors on the appropriate muscle, show you your tensing and relaxation patterns and then teach you how to recognize and decrease the muscle tension.

There are currently three specializations in biofeedback as defined by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (BCIA). These are: brainwave biofeedback commonly called neurofeedback, pelvic muscle dysfunction biofeedback for treating urinary and fecal incontinence, and general biofeedback. General biofeedback uses several measures to determine your individual pattern of stress. These include muscle tension, breathing pattern, heart rate, finger temperature and skin response.

Think for a moment where you put your tension. If you put your stress in the respiratory system, you may hold your breath, breathe rapidly, or take shallow breaths. This is an extremely common stress response seen in those with anxiety, panic, asthma, or in those who are just overstressed. Do you put your stress in your skeletal muscles? If so you may suffer from chronic muscle pain, repetitive strain injuries, or jaw pain. Or perhaps, you put your tension in the smooth muscles of the digestive tract. This may result in indigestion, nausea, diarrhea or constipation (irritable bowel syndrome). If you put your stress in the autonomic nervous system, your hands and feet may frequently get cold. This pattern is typical of those with hypertension, migraines and Raynaud's. The autonomic nervous system may also cause you to break out in a sweat and your heart beat to become rapid. Finally, some people become dizzy, nervous, confused or have trouble paying attention. This indicates the central nervous system is involved. Biofeedback gives a window into each of these systems and allows us to see and then change an unhealthy pattern into a healthy pattern.

What happens when you consult a biofeedback specialist? After getting some information from you, the specialist would start by showing you the sensors and explaining how they are attached. A common fear is that the sensors put electricity into the body. You should know that the sensors do not put anything into your body but only measure what is happening. You are encouraged to ask questions and be sure that you understand and are comfortable.

One of the first steps is to do a Stress Profile. This is a brief procedure (6 to 15 minutes) that will show what your individual stress response looks like. The therapist may place one or several sensors on you. This may include a muscle sensor on your forehead or another muscle, a respiration belt around your waist, a small thermometer on a finger, a sensor to measure your heart rate and a sensor to measure sweat response on the palm of the hand. The specialist will ask you to do some things that are mildly stressful, for example do some math, or talk about something that stresses you. You are then shown your individual stress pattern. A healthy pattern shows a rapid recovery once the stress is over. For example, a relaxed muscle has a tension of about 2 microvolts, when stressed it may go up to 3 but then come right back down to 2 microvolts when you stop talking about your stress. A person who is over-stressed will not show this recovery.

The biofeedback specialist designs an individualized treatment plan for you. Biofeedback is a short-term treatment. Some problems may require only a couple of sessions, but more typically biofeedback would involve 5-10 sessions. Biofeedback also requires some practice at home between sessions.

Biofeedback is safe, non-invasive, self-empowering and a lot of fun. To learn about what problems can be effectively treated with biofeedback or to get further information, go to the Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback at www.AAPB.org. AAPB also recommends that you find a therapist who is BCIA-certified. A BCIA-certified therapist is a health professional who completed the required courses, trained under supervision, passed an exam, adheres to the ethics code and obtains continuing education credits every year. To find a BCIA-certified therapist in your region, go to www.bcia.org.

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Dr. Lake will be adding more articles to this section soon.