What Is Biofeedback Therapy And Will It Work For Me?

Updated August 13, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Elizabeth Strong

Overview

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Biofeedback is used to treat many ailments, both psychological and physical. In Santa Monica in 1969, a new concept called biofeedback was introduced at a conference held by the biofeedback research society. For the first time, spiritual/consciousness awareness met science on the mutual ground; biofeedback was met with enthusiasm by both scientists and the consciousness awareness movement.

The interdisciplinary nature of biofeedback is 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 controlling brain waves or pain perception. Although this interesting new therapy seemed brand new to most of the world, the roots of biofeedback originate back in 1908 with research by Edmund Jacobson at Harvard. As Jacobson continued to work, his research evolved through the early 1930's. His research showed that progressive muscle relaxation could ease neurotic tension and several physical disorders.

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 time the 1960s arrived, these new disciplines developed into biofeedback therapy that was introduced by the biofeedback research society in Santa Monica.

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 positive, 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 therapy.

Today, biofeedback has decades of research and data to rely on, and the data says it works. The main goal 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, an individual can learn to control those processes and establish guided imagery relaxation. Biofeedback has proven itself to be a real benefit to many and it is worth giving some thought to this form of therapy.

The Different Types Of Biofeedback

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There are several different types of biofeedback used to provide feedback that can then be utilized to understand and control human physiology. Each biofeedback has its own set of indications and the main goal of the therapy is to learn to understand the indications provided by biofeedback therapy to learn how to control the specific physiological functions. Regulating physiological functions provides the user the ability to alleviate symptoms of many different ailments and abnormal body functions, both mental and physical.

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

  • Brainwave Biofeedback - an 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 makes use of electrical sensors to help with conditions such as migraine headaches, and the pain and anxiety associated with migraine headaches. This biofeedback is then used to learn how to regulate the activity.
  • Heart Rate Biofeedback - an ECG 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 regulate heart function. By regulating 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 is particularly useful for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the condition that results from the combined effects of emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
  • Muscle Biofeedback - an 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 regulate muscle tension. This type of biofeedback therapy is 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). 
  • Temperature Biofeedback -Blood flow to the skin is monitored using sensors on the finger or feet. This skin temperature biofeedback provides feedback that is used to recognize rising stress or tension levels. As the 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 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.

Physical And Mental Conditions Treated With Biofeedback

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Many physical and mental conditions can be treated with biofeedback, and biofeedback methods vary depending on what condition the patient needs treated. Biofeedback is used to treat many conditions such as high blood pressure, Raynaud’s disease, urinary incontinence, and others, those of which are usually non-life-threatening physical issues. 

It is important to note that there are less than reputable practitioners of biofeedback, so it is smart to always ask for credentials before committing to a session. A reputable practitioner of biofeedback therapy will usually be accredited by the Association for Applied Psychophysiology. As a member of this association, that biofeedback therapist has undergone enough training in the practice of biofeedback therapy and is up to date on all of the state laws regulating biofeedback therapy. Before seeking biofeedback therapy, it’s absolutely necessary to make sure that your biofeedback therapist has all of the correct biofeedback training, as well as the accreditation to show for it.

It’s also extremely important to remember that biofeedback cannot cure conditions, but it can ease symptoms and improve health. For a patient suffering from a severe condition like breast cancer, biofeedback will not cure the disease, but it can help the patient manage their negative emotions and provide some pain relief. Additionally, biofeedback cannot 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.

The following physical conditions may be improved with the proper use of Biofeedback provided by a professional therapist or certified health care provider:

  • High Blood Pressure - High blood pressure biofeedback can be used to help you regulate blood pressure. It will not cure any disease that is causing high blood pressure, but it can help you regulate it and alleviate symptoms. High blood pressure is a serious condition that must be controlled in order to lead a healthy life. 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 does cause chronic pain/discomfort. 
  • A Headache - Biofeedback can be used to help you 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 helps by alleviating the triggers for headaches in the first place. Head pain can be triggered by transmandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ), and pain relief can be accomplished via pain management biofeedback therapy.
  • Anxiety - Biofeedback helps you learn to regulate the body’s reaction to anxiety, which reduces the symptoms of anxiety. This therapy can also alleviate the stress that triggers anxiety and reduce the severity of anxiety overall. With this biofeedback testing, patients can learn to manage their symptoms, which is extremely useful for those who suffer from anxiety asthma. 
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder - Biofeedback can improve focus, concentration, lower stress, and improve blood flow, helping you to control attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but it cannot cure it.
  • 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. Pain management is immensely important when living with a condition such as fibromyalgia. 
  • Incontinence/Constipation - Incontinence biofeedback can lessen fecal incontinence, urine 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 is useful in learning how to live with conditions characterized by chronic pain. 
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome - By reducing stress via use of 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 levels can benefit people at risk for stroke. 

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

Those with learning disabilities and other mental health conditions - such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (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 be alleviated, as well as most other psychological conditions; when stress is reduced, and mental acuity is improved, psychological conditions improve. Applied psychophysiology is an incredible tool, and there is even research to show that using biofeedback may help relieve the symptoms of PTSD.

Instruments And Devices Used For Biofeedback

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

  • ECG - provides feedback on the heart, such as heart rate variability. This machine is able to 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. 
  • EEG - provides feedback on brain waves. This machine also allows the biofeedback therapist to see, in real time, the speed and direction of brain waves, which can allow them specific insight into brain functions such as focus and response to input or stimuli.
  • EMG - provides feedback on muscles and measures muscle contraction/tension. The results from this machine also allow the biofeedback therapist to see exactly where on the body the highest points of pressure, stress, and pain are occurring. 
  • 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 prompt provide guidance on practicing proper biofeedback techniques and it provides feedback on progress/results. Any sensors used for biofeedback can be plugged into the computer to provide usable feedback through prompts and graphics.
  • Mobile App -mobile apps are available for practicing biofeedback, and the app tracks physiological events and changes using wearable sensors, and then provide the user with the feedback that is necessary to practice biofeedback techniques.

With all of these tests and procedures of biofeedback therapy can give a lot of valuable insight as to what is going on in a patient’s body. With this 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.

Does It Work For Everyone?

Biofeedback is not a cure-all; it is used to enhance health by providing the patient with the 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. In doing so, their psychological health also sees many of the benefits of biofeedback therapy. The more in touch an individual is with their physical and mental state, the healthier they are. Everyone can get some benefit from biofeedback. This type of therapy can be used even if there is no actual mental health concern; it is a therapy that enhances as well as provides a therapeutic effect for those with mental health problems. 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 may gain more from this therapy than others. How well these therapy works varies from person to person. Results depend on the severity of the problem and the understanding of the patient. There is a learning curve; the biofeedback is meant to help the patient gain a deeper understanding of their mind and body, how well the information is applied to control body functions can vary.

Therapists and other certified healthcare professionals could administer biofeedback therapy sessions. It is important to do some research before choosing a professional to provide medical advice. Anyone who practices biofeedback should be certified to do so. Biofeedback is a therapy that works well alongside other traditional psychological therapies, so it may be a great addition to other plans of treatment.

Finding the right counselor, doctor, or therapist is important because how the biofeedback therapy is performed, and how well the individual understands the results, makes a big difference in the quality of the therapy. Just like any other medical/psychological treatment, a certified professional is the only one who can provide safe results. If you are unsure about whether this therapy is right for you, ask your doctor or therapist, they are the only ones who can answer this question for you. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is biofeedback and how does it work?

Biofeedback can be defined as the process in which a person gains a greater understanding of their psychological and physiological bodily processes. This understanding is what allows for people to control their own functions, such as heart rate, pain management, attention deficit disorders, etc. In order to conduct biofeedback therapy, trained medical professionals use different instruments to detect changes in body functions. These instruments include: EEG for brain wave detection, EKG/ECG for heart monitoring, EMG for muscle activity detection, EDG for detecting perspiration levels and skin temperatures, computer programs for synthesizing data, and mobile apps to help people continue their biofeedback therapy at home. It is a very noninvasive procedure, so biofeedback can benefit people who do not want to take medication, or want to take less medication. For example, biofeedback can help women who are pregnant and would like to handle certain symptoms but cannot take certain medications due to their pregnancies. For all guidance regarding medication, please speak to a licensed medical professional. There are a growing number of biofeedback devices that are available for home use, or you could look into applied psychophysiology and biofeedback devices or programs available from certified biofeedback practitioners. 

To understand why biofeedback is successful, let’s look at an overview of biofeedback therapy sessions. In a biofeedback session a therapist attaches electrical sensors all over your body. Depending on the condition that you sought out treatment for, the biofeedback devices may vary, and they may target different parts of the body. For example, those sensors may monitor your skin temperature, brain waves, heart rate, muscle tensions, and breathing. Biofeedback devices feed this information back to you via cues like a beeping monitor so that you become hyper aware of how your body reacts to different stimuli.

Biofeedback lets you become aware of bodily changes that you might not otherwise notice so that you can learn to control them. For example, there might be one specific tense muscle that is causing your headaches. Once you pinpoint the source of your pain, biofeedback therapy can relax that muscle gradually over time as you learn to feel it and control it. Ultimately, you should learn to control your body and make these changes on your own at home, even when no biofeedback devices are closely monitoring your body. 

The average biofeedback session lasts half an hour to an hour, but the length of the sessions with biofeedback practitioners vary depending on your condition and needs. The frequency with which a patient attends biofeedback therapy sessions will also vary. Their biofeedback therapist will schedule the sessions based on the nature of the issue being treated, as well as the progress that the patient makes throughout the course of the treatment.

What is biofeedback therapy used for?

Biofeedback benefits people who need to gain a better grasp on their physiological and psychological conditions. Biofeedback allows people to control their body functions in order to cope with the conditions from which they suffer. This type of therapy has shown great promise in the treatment of a wide array of medical conditions, including but not limited to: chronic pain, anxiety, stroke, high blood pressure, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), asthma, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), headaches, and fibromyalgia. There is good evidence that biofeedback therapy helps treat these issues in a noninvasive yet effective way. Common uses of biofeedback include treating patients who want to take less medication or who can no longer take their medication due to something like pregnancy. For all guidance on medication, please consult a licensed medical professional. If you are interested in trying biofeedback therapy, you can look into biofeedback practitioners in your area. Biofeedback practitioners have gone through biofeedback training and they meet certain certifications and fulfill laws regulating biofeedback practitioners. These practitioners are often trained in another similar discipline such as physical therapy, psychology, or nursing. For that reason, a certified practitioner may be able to help your condition in conjunction with other forms of therapy, physical therapy or psychological help, depending on the severity of your condition. There are biofeedback types that are available to do at home, and there are certain apps marketed as biofeedback devices, however it is best to talk to a professional about biofeedback therapy, and you may find that in your case, biofeedback is a technique best practiced with a professional who has a number of biofeedback devices. 

What type of therapy is biofeedback?

Biofeedback can be thought of as an alternative therapy. It is considered an alternative therapy because it is not what most people think of when they envision a traditional therapy session. Instead, this form of applied psychophysiology uses the detection of measurable data – such as heart rate, brain waves, muscle contraction, and perspiration – to help the patient gain greater control of their body functions. So, these quantifiable measurements - such as heart rate, brain waves, perspiration levels, etc. - are used as constructive information for people looking to manage their medical conditions. 

What is the process of biofeedback?

Biofeedback is an extremely process-driven discipline founded in scientific observation. Biofeedback therapists rely on biofeedback devices to provide them with quantifiable data. Instruments - such as EEG for brain waves, EKG/ECG for heart monitoring, EMG for muscles biofeedback, EDG for perspiration levels and skin temperatures, computer programs for analyzing data - help direct treatment options. The therapist carefully reviews all data constantly providing biofeedback, and helps the patient in their pursuit of bodily function control. This process is very rewarding for both patient and therapist, as the patient can grow stronger while the therapist can enjoy the fruits of their labor. It is in this way that patients and therapists can work together as a team to accomplish goals. 

Biofeedback is a technique that helps you become more aware of your body. The process will vary depending on your needs, but certain devices will be attached to monitor your muscle tension, your brain waves, your breathing, your heart rate, etc. You will then be able to see or hear a monitor that gives you constant feedback about what is happening within your body. Biofeedback uses include attention to what is going on inside your body, theoretically so that you can better control those processes. Over time, this practice does make a difference in many medical conditions. For example, if you want to change your blood pressure slightly biofeedback can help. There are many other uses for biofeedback therapy including deep breathing and relaxation for anxiety, or identifying a specific tensed muscle that could be leading to chronic pain. Especially in conjunction with other procedures biofeedback is very effective and many patients have seen stellar results. 

Does biofeedback really work?

Biofeedback really does work, and its foundation is dated back to Harvard in the early 1900s. However, it did not begin to gain popularity until the 1960s. Countless years of research findings have helped change this previously untrusted form of therapy into a mainstream technique that helps patients achieve the goals they desire. It is important to remember that the effectiveness of biofeedback therapy is heavily dependent on the therapist with whom you are working. Before seeking medical advice and treatment, make sure that your therapist is experienced in conducting biofeedback therapy. If you would like to learn more about your options with biofeedback, try speaking with a professional and learning about what options for procedures, biofeedback or others, you have for your condition. Most importantly, do not stop taking medication suddenly without consulting a professional, even if you notice your symptoms are being reduced by biofeedback therapy. 

What are the side effects of biofeedback therapy?

As a general rule, biofeedback is a safe form of treatment. Various medical research institutions, such as the Mayo Clinic, have conducted studies in which no negative side effects were reported. However, prior to starting biofeedback therapy, it would be smart to first check with your primary care physician, as there are certain health factors that may make patients unfit for biofeedback treatment. 

Does biofeedback help with anxiety?

Yes. Biofeedback promotes relaxation by making you more aware of certain bodily functions like your heart rate, muscle tensions, and breathing. Biofeedback can help treat many different conditions, and anxiety is one of them. This form of therapy can help patients recognize their body’s reaction to anxiety. After learning the warning signs of an anxiety attack, patients will learn how to regulate their response. Managing anxiety is helpful for anyone suffering from this condition and would be even more beneficial for those afflicted by severe, debilitating forms of anxiety.

How long does it take for biofeedback to work?

Typically, a person will need to complete approximately ten biofeedback sessions before making significant progress. However, with more complex conditions like high blood pressure, more sessions may be needed to achieve desired results. Biofeedback therapy will not work immediately. Patients can expect to attend several sessions before seeing the results of biofeedback therapy. Plus, in addition to attending the sessions, patients usually have to spend some time outside of the scheduled sessions practicing and applying what they’ve learned from the biofeedback therapy sessions. This practice and application usually comes in the form of deep breathing exercises, mindfulness towards heart rate and thought processes, and muscle relaxation and stretching exercises.

Who can perform biofeedback therapy?

Many states do not require healthcare providers to have any special licensing in order to perform biofeedback therapeutic treatment. This means that physicians, psychologists, physical therapists, nurses, social workers, and other professionals can practice this form of treatment without actually being licensed to do so. Therefore, in order to find the right person to conduct this kind of work, the healthcare professional should at least fulfill the requirements approved by the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA). This organization outlines minimum levels of knowledge, training, and experience needed in order to practice as a legitimate biofeedback therapist. Look to see if your provider has received formal training in biofeedback of your kind of condition and training for the diagnosis and treatment of your condition. It is of the utmost importance that you choose a provider that is skilled and knowledgeable. 

What's the difference between neurofeedback and biofeedback?

Neurofeedback and biofeedback are related concepts, but not completely the same techniques. Listed below are the main characteristics of each treatment method:

  • Neurofeedback 
    • Mainly used to treat psychological disorders and mental disorders
    • Also used for performance enhancement
    • Uses EEG to detect brain waves during treatment, and these brain waves are used to teach patients - via a feedback loop of the waves in the form of audio and/or video - how to think best and control their brain waves
  • Biofeedback
    • Mainly used for management of bodily functions and pain management
    • Helps patients learn what they should do when symptoms occur
    • Uses EEG for brain wave detection, EKG/ECG for heart monitoring, EMG for muscle activity detection, EDG for detecting perspiration levels and skin temperatures, computer programs for synthesizing data, and mobile apps for home treatment. Biofeedback helps people learn how to effectively manage their conditions

Can you do biofeedback at home?

While traditional biofeedback treatment is primarily conducted in hospitals and medical centers, there have been new developments to help patients complete their therapeutic work at home. Of course, biofeedback devices and biofeedback equipment like EKG machines, EEG machines, EMG machines, etc. will not be available to at-home patients, but there are a few ways in which biofeedback treatment can be accomplished from the comfort of your home. Interactive computer systems and other devices are sometimes used for biofeedback purposes. Home biofeedback is generally safe While these technological advances are promising, it is still preferable to engage in in-person biofeedback treatment if possible. It is hard to replace the in-person experience with one that is virtual, so that you can ensure you receive the best studied biofeedback and get feedback and results in real time. 

But even at home, biofeedback benefits various types of both physical and emotional ailments. There are at-home sessions available, such as:

  • Biofeedback for high blood pressure
  • Biofeedback and relaxation training to treat anxiety or stress
  • Side effects from chemotherapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Pain relief biofeedback
  • Constipation
  • Biofeedback women with incontinence, i.e. patients who struggle with controlling their bladder
  • Asthma
  • Chronic pain
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears
  • High blood pressure
  • Headaches

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