If you’re stressed, your heart races, your muscles tense up, your mind blurs, or your head pounds, is it possible to calm yourself down by controlling these physical effects? Using biofeedback, you may be able to. Although doctors disagree on the extent of biofeedback’s effectiveness, there is a consensus among other health experts that it can provide some benefits.
Medical and health manuals define biofeedback as "a treatment that uses simple exercises or counseling in combination with devices that monitor involuntary physical functions, such as brain wave activity, heart rate, or muscle tension." Patients learn to control physical or mental responses in order to help relieve a range of disorders, including asthma, insomnia, and incontinence.
Experts say that as a biofeedback patient, you will first be hooked up to a monitoring device. Such devices may include an electromyograph (EMG), which monitors muscle tension, an electroencephalograph (EEG), which monitors brain waves, or a heart monitor. Using the device, you will see how part of your body is functioning – usually by means of a needle moving on a dial or by a flashing light.
Your biofeedback therapist will then guide you through specific exercises that teach you positive physical responses. According to therapists, these responses, which are also monitored, include lowering blood pressure or retraining muscles and may give you a sense of control over your condition. Success comes when you can exert the same control without the use of a monitor.
Biofeedback employs a variety of therapies, devices, and exercises. Whichever form is used, experts say that it works best when the patient is highly motivated. Consider the following success stories from various records:
– With the help of an EMG, a patient can retrain specific muscles, relaxing those that are chronically tense or contracting those that are weak or paralyzed. With this method, sufferers of incontinence can learn to retrain their pelvic muscles.
– Using an EEG, a patient can learn to produce more alpha and theta brain waves, the electrical impulses that are associated with calm alertness. This method may also be useful in the treatment of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
– Using a heart monitor, a patient can learn to control anxiety by slowing down his heart rate. In one study, people who concentrated on slowing their heart rate for 10 minutes each day had significantly less anxiety after three months.
Some of the conditions experts claim biofeedback can help ease include migraine headaches, anxiety, asthma attacks, insomnia, incontinence, irritable bowel syndrome, Raynaud’s disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and rehabilitation from stroke.
To find a therapist, ask your doctor. Each session (usually 6 to 10 are necessary) can cost up to $200 per hour but may be covered by private health insurance or Medicare.
Finally, a reminder: Biofeedback may be no more beneficial than low-tech relaxation exercises alone and should not be used in place of any medication that you are taking for your condition.