Biofeedback is based on the concept that we have the inherent ability to influence the automatic functions of our bodies through the power of will and mind. Recent advancements in biofeedback have demonstrated an unprecedented level of control over various physiological events. It serves as a valuable tool in the realm of mind-body medicine.
For instance, individuals can be trained within days to increase the temperature of one hand by five to ten degrees compared to the other hand, all without engaging hand muscles. Remarkably, even animals can be trained in biofeedback. In one experiment, researchers trained a laboratory rat to produce a temperature difference in its two ears in exchange for a food reward.
Despite its initial appearance as science fiction, this experiment has practical applications. Biofeedback-trained individuals can rapidly warm their hands, which can effectively interrupt a migraine attack. This redirection of blood flow from the head's blood vessels to the hands and arms alleviates the headache. While people with "pure" migraines can learn this technique in a week, about 90 percent of migraine cases involve chronic tension that requires long-term treatment with biofeedback relaxation methods. Scientific evidence supports many of these techniques.
Using specialized machines and sensors to monitor muscle contractions and skin temperature, individuals can learn to control typically involuntary processes like heart rate and blood pressure, which tend to increase during stressful situations. These machines provide feedback on their efforts, enabling individuals to recognize and control facets of the stress response independently. Initially met with skepticism, the control of "involuntary" responses has become effective in treating conditions like migraine headaches, asthma, and other disorders in certain individuals.
Interest in biofeedback has waxed and waned since its inception in the 1960s. However, it is experiencing renewed interest in the early 21st century, possibly due to the growing fascination with alternative medicine modalities. Neurofeedback, a form of biofeedback, has gained popularity in treating Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Electromyogram biofeedback for muscle tension has been extensively studied and is widely accepted for treating incontinence disorders. Additionally, compact biofeedback devices are now available for various home applications. The role of biofeedback in controlling hypertension is also gaining recognition.
Practical Applications of Biofeedback and Clinical Trials
Once individuals have learned to achieve deep relaxation, they can replicate the same state of mind they experience during biofeedback sessions when they are at home or work. They simply relax and strive to vividly recall how they felt when they were able to continuously extinguish the buzzer or light.
If the issue is blood pressure, they can recall how they felt when the monitor cuff on their arm revealed that their blood pressure had returned to normal.
Results may vary, but they are often impressive. Some researchers have reported promising outcomes with asthmatic individuals, noting that spasms of the airway passages involve muscle contractions that relaxation training can address. Many people suffering from headaches and chronic pain due to injuries or surgeries have significantly reduced or completely eliminated their reliance on drugs.
In an experiment involving six patients with cerebral palsy, biofeedback training enabled all six to relax enough to improve both fine and gross motor coordination. Four of the six also improved their speech, and subsequent studies confirmed these findings. Biofeedback training can also empower individuals to gain active control over their muscles. Devices measuring minute muscular activity are attached to the target area, and the individual's goal is to take actions that keep the machine on rather than off. Many patients discover that they have some degree of control over areas previously considered helpless or paralyzed, and with continued effort, they can regain a surprising level of control. While still experimental, this approach holds promise for the rehabilitation of stroke and accident victims. One researcher claimed to have trained individuals with fecal incontinence and no apparent nervous control over their anal sphincter to regain continence with just one to four hours of training.
When biofeedback is combined with yoga or meditative relaxation techniques, the results are particularly gratifying. Practitioners can immediately gauge the effectiveness of their relaxation meditation while connected to a biofeedback machine.
A study published in Lancet (July 19, 1975) compared six weeks of yoga relaxation techniques with biofeedback to a "placebo" therapy consisting of general relaxation. The study involved 34 high blood pressure patients. One group received yoga relaxation techniques with biofeedback, while the control group practiced general relaxation.
Both groups experienced a reduction in blood pressure. However, the group that practiced yoga relaxation techniques with biofeedback showed a significant average reduction from 168/100 to 141/84 mm, a drop of 16 points in blood pressure, which is highly significant.
Various field studies and controlled trials have demonstrated that biofeedback therapy is a valid method for inducing relaxation, treating specific functional disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, tension headaches, and expediting recovery following a stroke.
Conditions helped by Biofeedback
Risk, Cautions and Contraindications of Biofeedback
Biofeedback therapy is not recommended for persons with severe psychosis, depression, or obsessional neurosis, nor for debilitated patients or those with psychopathic personalities. It is dangerous for diabetics and others with endocrine disorders, as it can change the need for insulin and other medications.