Biofeedback: Using your mind to improve your health

Biofeedback is a technique you can use to learn to control your body's functions, such as your heart rate. With biofeedback, you're connected to electrical sensors that help you receive information (feedback) about your body (bio). This feedback helps you focus on making subtle changes in your body, such as relaxing certain muscles, to achieve the results you want, such as reducing pain.

In essence, biofeedback gives you the power to use your thoughts to control your body, often to help with a health condition or physical performance. Biofeedback is often used as a relaxation technique.

Why it's done Risks How you prepare What you can expect Results

Biofeedback, sometimes called biofeedback training, is used to help manage many physical and mental health issues, including:

  • Anxiety or stress
  • Asthma
  • Chemotherapy side effects
  • Chronic pain
  • Constipation
  • High blood pressure
  • Incontinence
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Raynaud's disease

Biofeedback appeals to people for a variety of reasons:

  • It's noninvasive.
  • It may reduce or eliminate the need for medications.
  • It may be a treatment alternative for those who can't tolerate medications.
  • It may be an option when medications haven't worked well.
  • It may be an alternative to medications for some conditions during pregnancy.
  • It helps people take charge of their health.

Biofeedback is generally safe. Biofeedback may not be appropriate for everyone, though. Be sure to discuss it with your doctor first.

You don't need special preparation for biofeedback.

To find a biofeedback therapist, start by asking your doctor or another health professional with knowledge of biofeedback therapy to recommend someone who has experience treating your condition.

Ask a potential biofeedback therapist questions before starting treatment, such as:

  • What is your training and experience?
  • Do you have experience providing feedback for my condition?
  • How many biofeedback sessions do you think I'll need?
  • What's the cost, and is it covered by health insurance?
  • Can you provide a list of references?

During a biofeedback session, a therapist attaches electrical sensors to different parts of your body. These sensors monitor your body's physiological state, such as brain waves, skin temperature or muscle tension. This information is fed back to you via cues, such as a beeping sound or a flashing light. The feedback teaches you to change or control your body's physiological reactions by changing your thoughts, emotions or behavior. In turn, this can help the condition for which you sought treatment.

For instance, biofeedback can pinpoint tense muscles that are causing headaches. You then learn how to invoke positive physical changes in your body, such as relaxing those specific muscles, to reduce your pain. The ultimate goal with biofeedback is to learn to use these techniques at home on your own.

A typical biofeedback session lasts 30 to 60 minutes. The length and number of sessions are determined by your condition and how quickly you learn to control your physical responses. You may need a series of 10 sessions or as many as 50, which can make it more expensive and time-consuming. Biofeedback is often not covered by insurance.

Types of biofeedback

Your therapist may use several different biofeedback techniques. Determining the technique that's right for you depends on your health problems and goals. Biofeedback techniques include:

  • Electromyography (EMG) biofeedback. This type gives you information about your body's muscle tension so that you can practice relaxation.
  • Temperature (thermal) biofeedback. Sensors attached to your fingers or feet measure your skin temperature. Because your temperature often drops when you're under stress, a low reading can prompt you to begin relaxation techniques.
  • Galvanic skin response training. Sensors measure the activity of your sweat glands and the amount of perspiration on your skin, alerting you to anxiety.
  • Heart rate variability biofeedback. This type of biofeedback helps you control your heart rate in an effort to improve blood pressure, lung function, and stress and anxiety.

Biofeedback devices

You can receive biofeedback training in physical therapy clinics, medical centers and hospitals. But a growing number of biofeedback devices and programs are being marketed for home use. Some of these are hand-held portable devices, while others connect to your computer. You can try different devices until you find one that works for you, or ask your doctor for advice. Check with your health insurance company to see what costs, if any, associated with biofeedback devices are covered.

Be aware that some products marketed as biofeedback devices may not be, and that not all biofeedback practitioners are reputable. If a manufacturer or biofeedback practitioner claims that a biofeedback device can assess your organs for disease, find impurities in your blood, cure your condition or send signals into your body, check with your doctor before using it, as it may not be legitimate.

Experts aren't entirely sure how biofeedback works. But if biofeedback is successful for you, it may help you control symptoms of your condition or reduce the amount of medication you take. Eventually, you can practice the biofeedback techniques you learn on your own. You may need to continue with standard treatment for your condition, though.

On the downside, learning biofeedback can take a lot of time and, if it's not covered by your health insurance, it can be personally expensive. In some cases, biofeedback may be no more effective than other simpler, less expensive relaxation techniques, such as yoga.


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