What Is Biofeedback Therapy And Will It Work For Me?

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly
Updated November 10, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

In 1969, a new concept called biofeedback was introduced at a conference held by the Biofeedback Research Society. Biofeedback was met with enthusiasm by both scientists and the consciousness awareness movement.

The interdisciplinary nature of biofeedback is part of what made it so unique and appealing. This new therapy promised to help people gain control over the body processes that were once thought to be involuntary, such as brain waves or pain perception.

Although this therapy seemed brand new to most of the world, the roots of biofeedback originate back to 1908 with research by Edmund Jacobson at Harvard. As Jacobson continued to investigate, his research evolved through the early 1930s. His research showed that progressive muscle relaxation could ease neurotic tension and several physical disorders.

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The Development Of Biofeedback Therapy

The early work of Jacobson provided a framework for the development of biofeedback therapy. Another researcher, Johann Schultz, refined his contribution to the early development of biofeedback with his autogenic training. This technique used crude electrical equipment to produce low arousal that brought about a quieting effect on the autonomic nervous system. By the 1960s, these treatments had developed into biofeedback therapy which was introduced by the Biofeedback Research Society. 

The study of biofeedback techniques by several medical specialties has led to the form of biofeedback available today. While there have been critics through the years—and critics today as well—there are many scientific reports that show this therapy is legitimate. The FDA has even approved a biofeedback device for personal home use, which can be used with or without a biofeedback practitioner, and many health insurance plans cover this type of therapy.

One of the main goals of biofeedback therapy is to provide an individual with an awareness of the body's physiological and psychological functions with the idea that through this awareness, the individual can learn to control those processes and establish guided imagery relaxation. 

The Different Types Of Biofeedback

There are several different types of biofeedback that can be used to understand and control human physiology. Managing physiological functions provides the user the ability to alleviate symptoms of many different ailments and abnormal body functions, both mental and physical.

Below is a list of the different types of biofeedback used for therapy:

  • Brainwave Biofeedback: An electroencephalogram (EEG) machine provides biofeedback on brainwave activity. Multiple sensors are placed on the head, and the machine gives feedback on brain wave activity. Brainwave biofeedback uses electrical sensors to help with conditions such as migraine headaches, as well as the pain and anxiety associated with them. This biofeedback is then used to learn how to manage the activity.
  • Heart Rate Biofeedback: An electrocardiogram (EKG) machine is used to measure heart rate and heart rate variables. Sensors on the finger, earlobe, wrist, or chest provide information about heart rate and other variables that are used to learn how to read and maintain heart function. By maintaining heart function with the help of heart rate biofeedback, patients can start to see biofeedback results on their blood pressure and perceived stress and anxiety levels.
  • Respiration Biofeedback: Bands are placed around the chest and abdomen to measure respiration rates and respiration patterns. The biofeedback from these bands is used to learn how to control respiration. This biofeedback can be particularly useful for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a condition that results from the combined effects of emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
  • Muscle Biofeedback: An electromyography (EMG) machine uses sensors placed on the muscles to read the electrical activity created during muscle contraction. This biofeedback is then used to learn how to recognize and maintain muscle tension. This type of biofeedback therapy can be useful for targeting the specific muscle groups that usually respond the most dramatically or frequently to stressful stimuli, especially the shoulders, and jaw (medically known as the temporomandibular joint [TMJ]). 
  • Temperature Biofeedback: Blood flow to the skin is monitored using sensors on the finger or feet. This skin temperature biofeedback is used to recognize rising stress or tension levels. When a biofeedback therapist measures skin temperature, they are able to target stressors and triggers and then work with the patient to address these stressors and triggers. 
  • Perspiration Biofeedback: An electrodermograph (EDG) machine uses sensors on the fingers, palm, or wrist to measure perspiration on the skin. This biofeedback is used to recognize anxiety and stress via perspiration and changes in skin temperature.
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Physical And Mental Conditions Treated With Biofeedback

Many physical and mental conditions can be treated with biofeedback, and biofeedback methods vary depending on what condition the patient needs to be treated. Biofeedback is used to treat many conditions, such as high blood pressure, Raynaud’s disease, urinary incontinence, and others. The following physical conditions may be improved with the proper use of biofeedback provided by a professional therapist or certified healthcare provider:

  • High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure biofeedback can be used to help you control blood pressure. It will not cure any disease that is causing high blood pressure, but it can help you manage it and alleviate symptoms. Certain forms of high blood pressure, such as the high blood pressure that causes pulmonary hypertension, can be associated with Raynaud’s disease. Raynaud’s disease is characterized by limited blood flow to extremities, especially during periods of stress or cold temperatures. This condition is not typically dangerous, but it can cause chronic pain/discomfort.
  • Headaches: Biofeedback can be used to alleviate headaches by helping to relax muscle tension, which in turn reduces pressure on small capillaries, which can cause headaches and chronic pain. Using biofeedback to reduce stress and relax muscles can help by alleviating the triggers for headaches in the first place. Head pain can be triggered by transmandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, and pain relief can be accomplished via pain management biofeedback therapy.
  • Anxiety: Biofeedback can help you learn to control your body’s reaction to anxiety. This therapy can also alleviate the stress that triggers anxiety and reduce the severity of anxiety overall. With biofeedback testing, you can learn to manage your symptoms, which can be useful for those who have anxiety asthma.
  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Biofeedback can improve focus, concentration, stress, and blood flow, helping you to control symptoms of ADHD.
  • Asthma: Learning to control breathing using biofeedback can reduce the symptoms of asthma. Deep breathing during biofeedback sessions, in conjunction with control of other body functions, can help reduce the frequency and severity of asthma episodes. 
  • Fibromyalgia: Biofeedback can lessen the severity of the symptoms of fibromyalgia by providing the ability to relax muscles and change the perception of discomfort in general. 
  • Incontinence/Constipation: Incontinence biofeedback can lessen fecal incontinence, urinary incontinence, and constipation by providing better muscle control. Exercising and strengthening the pelvic floor muscles can help reduce the frequency of incontinence. 
  • Chronic Pain: Biofeedback can help alleviate chronic pain by changing the perception of pain. Pain management can be useful in learning how to live with conditions characterized by chronic pain. 
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): With biofeedback techniques, you can alleviate the symptoms of IBS triggered by stress and relieve the chronic pain associated with this condition.
  • Stroke: Biofeedback works by delivering information about body systems, such as the central nervous system (CNS). This biofeedback can be used to help alleviate the symptoms of stroke and improve recovery. High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke, so a biofeedback session to help lower high blood pressure can benefit people at risk of stroke. 

Many psychological conditions are treatable with biofeedback. In general, biofeedback is about learning to control and manage the body and mind using thought. Many psychological disorders benefit from stress reduction, enhanced mental focus, and an improved mind-body connection. In some cases, mindfulness meditation is an effective technique. 

Also, individuals with learning disabilities and other mental health conditions, such as ADHD, can benefit from an improved mind and body connection. When the mind and body are relaxed and clarity and focus are improved, learning has a chance to improve.

Depression and anxiety can improve, as can many other psychological conditions, when stress is reduced and mental acuity is improved. There is even research to show that using biofeedback may help relieve the symptoms of PTSD.

Instruments And Devices Used For Biofeedback

There are a number of biofeedback devices and programs that biofeedback therapists can use to identify the physical indicators of underlying problems. The following are the main instruments/tests used for administering biofeedback:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): An EKG provides feedback on the heart, such as heart rate variability. This machine can give insight as to how fast your heart is beating, as well as any oscillations or abnormalities in the way that your heart is beating, especially in reaction to stress. 
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): An EEG provides feedback on brain waves. This machine also allows a biofeedback therapist to see, in real-time, the speed and direction of brain waves, which can give them specific insight into brain functions, such as focus and response to input or stimuli.
  • Electromyography (EMG): An EMG provides feedback on muscles and measures muscle contraction/tension. The results from this machine also allow a biofeedback therapist to see exactly where on the body the highest points of pressure, stress, and pain are occurring. 
  • Electrodermogram (EDG): An EDG provides feedback on perspiration levels as a result of skin temperature changes.
  • Computer Programs. These programs help turn the information provided by the feedback machines into biofeedback to the patient. Interactive graphics and computer prompts provide guidance on practicing proper biofeedback techniques, and they provide feedback on progress/results. Any sensors used for biofeedback can be plugged into a computer to provide usable feedback through prompts and graphics.
  • Mobile App: Some mobile apps track physiological events and changes using wearable sensors. They then provide the user with the feedback that is necessary to practice biofeedback techniques.

These tests and procedures of biofeedback therapy can provide valuable insight as to what is going on in a patient’s body. With input from biofeedback therapy, including the specific details about a patient’s respiration, heart rate, muscles, and perspiration, a biofeedback therapist can offer specialized treatment.

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Does Biofeedback Work For Everyone?

Biofeedback is not a cure-all; it is used to enhance health by providing the patient with information they can use to develop a stronger mind-body connection. In terms of relief, biofeedback can benefit patients by providing them with the information and input necessary to become aware of their biological indicators, thus enabling them to better control these aspects of their physical health. 

Everyone has the potential to benefit from biofeedback. In general, biofeedback therapy can help people with a wide array of symptoms, even though it doesn’t necessarily treat the underlying issues that may be causing those symptoms.

Results vary greatly when it comes to tests, procedures, and biofeedback therapy. Some individuals may gain more from this therapy than others. Results may depend on the severity of the problem and the understanding of the patient. There can also be a learning curve. Biofeedback is meant to help the patient gain a deeper understanding of their mind and body, and how well the information is applied to control body functions can vary.

When you search for a biofeedback therapist, you might keep in mind that there are less-than-reputable practitioners of biofeedback. You can ask about a therapist’s credentials before committing to a session. A reputable practitioner of biofeedback therapy may have credentials from by the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA) or the Association for Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback

Also, before starting biofeedback therapy, remember that biofeedback cannot usually cure conditions, but it can ease symptoms and improve health. For a patient going through a severe condition, biofeedback will not cure the disease, but it may help the patient manage their negative emotions and provide some pain relief. Additionally, biofeedback cannot usually screen for disease or diagnose anything. In terms of risks, biofeedback is generally considered safe, as long as it’s being practiced by an accredited biofeedback therapist.

Therapists and other certified healthcare professionals can administer biofeedback therapy sessions.  Anyone who practices biofeedback should be certified to do so. Biofeedback is a therapeutic modality that tends to work well alongside other traditional types of therapy, so it may be a great addition to other plans of treatment.

How Online Therapy Can Help

If you’re interested in learning more about biofeedback or therapy in general, you might try online therapy, which research has demonstrated to be just as effective as in-person therapy. With Regain, you can talk to a therapist from the comfort of your own home, which may be especially helpful if you’re experiencing pain or anxiety. You can choose your mode of communication, whether audio or video chat, and you can contact your therapist in between sessions via in-app messaging. 

Takeaway

Biofeedback therapy can be effective for a wide array of conditions. No matter what physical or mental health symptoms you’re experiencing, you don’t have to face them alone. With Regain, you can be matched with a licensed therapist with experience treating whatever you’re going through. Take the first step to improved physical and mental health and reach out to Regain.

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