You feel a sharp pain behind your eyes and recognize it as the onset of migraine. Your skin feels clammy, and your breathing becomes quick and shallow. This physical response only increases the pain, and you realize you’re trapped. Or are you? Biofeedback is a technique that can be applied anywhere, at any time, to help control your body’s stress response to relieve pain. Here’s how it works.
What is biofeedback?
Biofeedback uses visual and auditory cues to help a person gain better control over many bodily indicators of stress and pain. By using feedback from machines that identify and measure your body’s stress response, you can learn techniques to help control that response.
This non-invasive approach utilizes self-control to help you effectively deal with stress, a condition that can make chronic pain feel worse. It focuses on using your mind to control your body’s physiological response in order to promote well-being from within.
How does it work? During each session, your doctor or therapist will apply several sensors to different areas on your body. These sensors monitor your body’s physiological response to stress. They also make you aware of your body’s changes. By visualizing your body’s physiological changes on a monitor, you learn to recognize and later control these changes.
Some of the measurements monitored include:
- Brain activity: An electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors the activity of your brain waves during different mental states and responses to certain conditions.
- Blood pressure: Your blood pressure can often dramatically rise when you are faced with stressful conditions.
- Muscle tension: Electromyography (EMG) measures muscle tension. EMG is used to promote the relaxation of those muscles involved in back pain, neck pain, headaches, and certain conditions that are responsive to stress such as ulcers.
- Heart rate: Your heart rate typically increases and your heart requires more oxygen when you face a stressful situation.
- Skin temperature: Because body temperature drops when the body is under stress, a low change in temperature can alert you to begin relaxation techniques.
- Sweat production: Galvanic skin response measures the activity of your sweat glands on your skin. This response can be directly influenced by emotional disorders such as phobias and anxiety.
Conditions responsive to biofeedback
Biofeedback uses principles similar to those of positive reinforcement. When one of the parameters changes, you either hear or see the changes on a monitor—this is the feedback. You begin to associate your body’s response with certain physiological functions. By monitoring these changes, you become aware of your body’s stressors. When this awareness happens, a biofeedback therapist helps you find methods to reverse or soothe the negative response to stress.
Due to this, stress-related disorders are found to be the most responsive to biofeedback training. These may include:
- Tension headaches
- Digestive disorders
- Raynaud’s disease
- Jaw or teeth grinding
- Other chronic pain disorders
Recent studies have also indicated that biofeedback may be effective in treating other conditions like urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cancer pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The latest biofeedback research
With cancer-related pain in advanced cancer patients, biofeedback helps to minimize the side effects of treatment, reducing the length of treatment and the costs associated with it.
Another common pain disorder, migraines, may be effectively treated with this therapy. In one study, migraineurs experienced not only a reduction of their pain during treatment but also a reduction of pain well after treatment ended.
The treatment for urine and fecal incontinence by biofeedback therapy shows not only improvement in symptoms of incontinence but also physical changes in study participants. These physical changes helped to improve overall outcomes for patients with these conditions.
Another well-known condition that is effectively treated with biofeedback is the recovery following a stroke. Biofeedback has been applied to many aspects of stroke rehabilitation.
Biofeedback research has flourished as scientists examine conditions that might respond well to treatment. These include:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
The combination of a patient’s feeling of control in their treatment with the powerful ability to release and relax the stress response is proving to benefit a variety of acute and chronic conditions.
How can biofeedback help me?
One of the major benefits of biofeedback is that there are no drug interactions and very few (if any) side effects to the treatment. Once you learn techniques to reduce or minimize your body’s physiological response to stress, the treatment is portable and goes with you wherever you do!
Other benefits and potential outcomes include the following.
Positive personal outcomes
Biofeedback has proved successful for many people because of the positive effects it can have for individuals. It can decrease the need for certain medications and can reduce your medical costs.
People report feeling more agency over their treatment as well. The feeling of being in control of your own healing is an empowering one, especially for people whose lives have been upended by chronic pain or illness.
Healing body and mind
Biofeedback not only works to improve your physical function. It also works to heal your mind and soul as well. This technique has a positive impact on self-confidence, self-control, and stress reduction.
Instant physiological changes as a result of your mental activity allows you to see the success of the treatment, in real time.
Relaxation that improves outcomes
Biofeedback helps you gain control over your body‘s physiological responses to certain conditions. Reviews of research have shown that this therapy initiates relaxation, which may help to treat certain conditions and decrease the timeline of recovery with rehabilitation.
What can I expect during a biofeedback session?
During a biofeedback session, your doctor or therapist will position sensors on a variety of places on your body. These sensors attach to a monitor that gives you feedback via visual cues or sounds when the measurements change.
When you hear these cues, your therapist will help you practice strategies to restore equilibrium. This might be breathing techniques, visualization, or other ways to regulate your body’s stress response.
Sessions can last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, depending on what you are working on. The number and frequency of sessions also depends on what conditions you are treating and what phase of the condition you are in.
Are there any biofeedback side effects?
Although biofeedback is considered very safe, as with all treatment techniques, there are small risks involved. For example, people with acute psychiatric illnesses or severe depression should not begin biofeedback therapy until they are stable. Patients with severe uncontrolled hypertension should not use biofeedback as their only source of treatment.
In addition, it is dangerous for diabetics and people with other endocrine disorders to use biofeedback without being monitored by their physician because it can alter their need for insulin and other hormones in the body. As always, it’s best to talk to your doctor before beginning any new therapy.