What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is a treatment technique in which people are trained to improve their health by using signals from their own bodies. Chances are you have used biofeedback yourself. You've used it if you have ever taken your temperature or stepped on a scale. The thermometer tells you whether you're running a fever, the scale whether you've gained weight. Both devices "feed back" information about your body's condition. Armed with this information, you can take steps you've learned to improve the condition. When you're running a fever, you go to bed and drink plenty of fluids. When you've gained weight, you may decide to eat less or start an exercise program.

Biofeedback clinicians utilize biofeedback devices in somewhat the same way that you rely on your scale or thermometer. Their machines can detect a person's internal bodily functions with far greater sensitivity and precision than a person can alone. This information may be valuable. Both patients and therapists use it to gauge and direct the progress of the recommended treatment.

For patients, the biofeedback machine acts as a kind of sixth sense which allows them to "see" or "hear" activity inside their bodies, thus enabling the biofeedback therapist to act as a coach, setting specific goals and limits as to what is expected and giving hints on how to improve personal performance.

The Beginnings of Biofeedback

The word "biofeedback" was coined in the late 1960s to describe laboratory procedures then being used to train experimental research subjects to alter brain activity, blood pressure, heart rate and other bodily functions that normally are not controlled voluntarily.

At the time, many scientists looked forward to the day when biofeedback would give us a major degree of control over our bodies. They thought, for instance, that we might be able to "will" ourselves to be more creative by changing the patterns of our brainwaves. Some believed that biofeedback would one day make it possible to do away with drug treatments that often cause uncomfortable side effects in patients with high blood pressure and other serious conditions.

Today, most scientists agree that such high hopes were not realistic. Research has demonstrated that biofeedback can help in the treatment of many diseases and painful conditions. It has shown that we have more control over so-called involuntary bodily function than we once though possible. But it has also shown that nature limits the extent of such control. Scientists are now trying to determine just how much voluntary control we can exert.

For What Conditions is Biofeedback Used?

Clinical biofeedback techniques are now widely used to treat a wide array of conditions. These include:

  • Anxiety, depression and mood disorders
  • Stress-related syndromes/adrenal exhaustion
  • Suppressed anger
  • Migraine and tension headaches
  • Pain
  • Disorders of the digestive system
  • High blood pressure and low blood pressure
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Raynaud's disease (a circulatory disorder that causes uncomfortably cold hands)
  • Epilepsy
  • Paralysis and other movement disorders

Biofeedback is used in conjunction with other techniques to achieve mind/body balance. Patients are taught some form of relaxation exercise. Some learn to identify the circumstances that trigger their symptoms. They may also be taught how to avoid or cope with these stressful events. Most are encouraged to change their habits and some are trained in special techniques for gaining such self-control.

Biofeedback, by itself, is not intended to cure any disease or make a person healthy. Since, however, behaviors, thoughts and feelings profoundly influence physical health, biofeedback is an important tool that helps balance the mind, thus facilitating physical healing as well.

How Does Biofeedback Work?

Most patients who benefit from biofeedback are trained to relax and modify their behavior. Relaxation is a key component in biofeedback treatment of many disorders, particularly those brought on or made worse by stress. Their reasoning is based on what is known about the effects of stress on the body. Stressful events produce strong emotions, which stimulate certain physical responses. Many of these responses are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the network of nerve tissues that helps prepare the body to meet emergencies by "flight or fight."

In prehistoric times the typical pattern of response to emergencies were mostly physical threats. However, the "threats" we now live with are seldom physical, the body reacts as if they were: Our pupils dilate to let in more light. Sweat pours out, reducing the chance of skin cuts. Our blood vessels near the skin contract to reduce bleeding, while those in the brain and muscles dilate to increase the oxygen supply. The gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines, slows down to reduce the energy expended in the digestive system. The heart beats faster and blood pressure rises. Additionally, our blood sugar rises to provide us with an energy source which enables us to run or fight back.

Normally, people calm down when a stressful event is over, especially if they have done something to cope with it.  For instance, if you get angry with your boss, your body may prepare to fight, but since you want to keep your job, you try to ignore the angry feelings. Similarly, if on the way home you get stalled in traffic, there's nothing you can do to get away. These situations, if left unresolved or unmanaged, can literally may you sick. Your body has prepared for action, but you cannot physically act.

Biofeedback is aimed at changing the habitual reactions to stress that may contribute to pain or disease. The monitoring of physical responses such as skin temperature, muscle tension, heart rate or heart rate variability provides feedback to help patients recognize when they are in a relaxed state. That feedback signal may also act as a kind of reward for reducing tension. It's like a piano teacher whose frown turns to a smile when a young musician finally plays a tune properly. This reassurance often encourages them to continue their efforts.

Should You Try Biofeedback?

If you think you might benefit from biofeedback training, you should discuss it with your physician or other health care professional, who may wish to conduct tests to make certain that your condition does not require conventional medical treatment first. Responsible biofeedback therapists will not treat you for headaches, hypertension, or most disorders until you have had a thorough physical examination. Some may require neurological tests as well.

How do you find a biofeedback therapist?

Biofeedback therapists are health care professionals who have undergone specialized training to learn biofeedback techniques and instruments. Dr. Glenn B. Gero has completed extensive training with the Stens Corporation and the Institute of HeartMath, two of the world leaders in biofeedback training. Additionally, Dr. Gero has been trained and certified as an Open Focus™ Trainer by Dr. Les Fehmi at the prestigious Princeton Biofeedback Centre.

Dr. Gero is certified as a biofeedback therapist through the Neurotherapy and Biofeedback Certification Board.

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