What biofeedback does do – and doesn’t

Laurence Miller

What Biofeedback Does (and Doesn’t) Do

Biofeedback bears a ’60s reputation despite its ’80s legitimacy. As a practitioner of biofeedback, I’m often asked whether it brings on altered states of consciousness or a blissful frame of mind without drugs. Others view it unrealistically as a panacea for stress, unhappiness and whatever else troubles you.

Biofeedback is neither a natural tranquilizer nor an elixir for all the ills of life. But research has shown convincingly that it’s an effective, painless and noninvasive treatment for many psychological and physical disorders.

Since biofeedback is a technique and not a profession, it’s hard to document growth in the number of people who practice it or who have tried it. But it is now used to treat a much wider range of conditions than it was 20 years ago, when most people viewed biofeedback techniques as unconventional and unproven.

How Biofeedback Works

Imagine playing a video game blindfolded and earplugged. Such sensory deprivation would make it impossible to play well. It’s the same with many signals from the body that are relevant to health and illness, such as blood pressure, skin temperature or the level of contraction in various muscles. These subtle signals are below the threshold of normal awareness. And what you can’t detect, you can’t control.

The Three Most Common Biofeedback Techniques

Typically, biofeedback rests on cues we can learn to control–muscle tension, skin temperature or how much we sweat–to treat conditions from headaches to panic attacks.

Biofeedback goes mainstream: The relief is in the relaxation this proven treatment provides.

Biofeedback makes that detection possible by combining the two fields of psychophysiology and behavior modification. “Bio” refers to an imperceptible physiological process, such as blood pressure. It’s picked up by a special device and electronically amplified into a perceptible tone or other signal that is “fed back” to the patient. The signal then guides him or her to increase or decrease activity in one of several of the body’s systems.

In electromyographic (or EMG) biofeedback, an electrode picks up the signals produced by microelectric pulses between nerve endings and muscle fibers. Since the amount of stimulation a muscle gets from a nerve controls how much it contracts. EMG feedback indicates the general state of contraction versus relaxation in a particular muscle group. This reading is translated into a tone. As the patient learns to lower the tone’s volume or frequency, he begins to simultaneously reduce the painful tension in his muscles.

The EMG technique is used to treat tension headaches and some kinds of migraine headaches, since much of the discomfort often stems from intense contraction of muscles in the forehead, jaw and scalp. It also helps treat pain syndromes that involve chronically taut muscles and muscle spasms after accidents or sports injuries.

Temperature biofeedback places a thermal probe on an affected body area, usually a hand or a foot; to read skin temperature. In extremities that’s mainly determined by the amount of blood flowing through tiny vessels in the skin and tissues just beneath it. By learning to control the rate and amount of blood flow in their hands or feet, people can warm them at will.

This technique helps relieve migraine headaches by easing tension in constricted arteries. It does the same thing for Raynaud’s disease, which involves painful cycles of blanching and reddening in the hands.

Electrodermal biofeedback, sometimes known as GSR (galvanic skin resistance), uses a probe that responds to sweat. Since the chemical composition of perspiration makes it a good electrical conductor, more sweat means better contact and a stronger signal. Most people tend to sweat more under states of arousal and stress, so relaxation techniques lower the signal, which is fed back to the patient.

Electrodermal feedback works well for any condition that causes people to feel generally worked up inside, such as anxiety disorders or chronic pain.

Why Biofeedback Works

All three biofeedback techniques help people relax — by signaling lowered muscle tension, improved blood flow in the extremities or reduced sweat gland activity. And such relaxation is largely what makes biofeedback successful in treating the health problems already mentioned, as well as phobias, high blood pressure, sleep disorders and several stomach and intestinal disturbances.

There are more specialized and sophisticated applications of biofeedback — some using the above three techniques — for conditions such as peptic ulcers, abnormal heart rhythms, epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome and Parkinson’s disease.

Though biofeedback machines help people learn physiological self-control, recent research suggests that some can achieve control simply through progressive relaxation. That’s probably because people have different sensitivities to their internal states. But for others with a health problem that involves chronic tension or arousal, the electronic devices provide a signal that can serve as a bridge to better self-control.

A typical course of biofeedback treatment runs about 12 to 20 weekly sessions, with perhaps a few follow-up booster sessions. After that, most patients can relax themselves without using biofeedback machines. The cost, which some insurance policies cover, is roughly equivalent to psychotherapy, about $50 to $125 per session.

Some people find home biofeedback equipment helpful. Consult a biofeedback practitioner before choosing this option. Neither the construction nor manufacturer’s claims about effectiveness are tightly regulated for biofeedback machines.

To locate a biofeedback therapist, start by asking your physician. Good practitioners generally have training in the health and behavioral sciences, usually as psychologists, physicians or nurse-clinicians. If you can’t get an appropriate referral, contact your state biofeedback association, state psychological association or: Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback 1200 W. 44th Ave., #304 Wheat Ridge, CO 80033

Laurence Miller, Ph.D., practices neuropsychology, biofeedback and behavioral medicine in Delray Beach, Fl.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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