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Pain Management: What Is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is an alternative, non-medical therapy in which the patient seeks to gain control over various typically involuntary body functions. It belongs to the category of mind-body therapies that aim to strengthen communication between the mind and body. Biofeedback is often used in pain management.

The aim of this complementary therapy is to use the mind to help control the body. Patients are taught how to control certain involuntary body responses using feedback from monitoring equipment. The monitoring equipment displays biological data such as heart rate or muscle tension in a visual or auditory form, which allows a patient to become aware of their body processes that are controlled unconsciously. By slowly learning to control these responses, patients can overcome various physical and mental health problems. Eventually, patients may be able to control their body’s response without the aid of the monitoring equipment.

A key part of biofeedback is mastering relaxation techniques, both in a specific body part and in the entire body. Controlling certain body functions like muscle stress and heart rate can reduce tension and eventually also pain. Other body responses that can be controlled with biofeedback include blood pressure and blood circulation, brain-wave activity, respiration and skin temperature.

Types of Biofeedback

The methods used to teach biofeedback depend on the conditions and goals of the individual patient. Some of the methods and equipment used include electromyography (sensors are attached to the skin to measure the electrical activity of the muscles to teach the patient to recognize and control muscle tension); neurofeedback (electroencephalogram monitors brain-wave activity to teach the patient to alter it), and galvanic skin response training (sensors measure perspiration and sweat-gland activity to help the patient control emotional disorders).

Other techniques that may be alternatively used include thermal biofeedback (sensors are attached to the fingers and feet to measure skin temperature to enable the patient to manage stress); forced oscillation method (uses a device called a pneumotachometer to teach the patient to control respiration); and bowel training (allows the patient to practice sphincter contractions and to learn to strengthen the rectal muscles).

Conditions Treated with Biofeedback

Biofeedback may be used to treat a large number of pain conditions as well as many other diseases, including:

Is Biofeedback Suitable for Everyone?

Although mind-body integration is an ancient concept of Eastern medicine, biofeedback techniques have been developed only in the second half of the 20th century and much about them is still not understood. Though the therapy seems to be effective for some people, other patients are not successful at mastering the techniques. Patients using biofeedback often cannot explain how they control their body functions to relieve symptoms of their health problems. Physicians, too, do not fully understand how this therapy works. However, many patients who use biofeedback often say that they feel more in control and more confident about their conditions and symptoms. Once the techniques are learned in a clinical setting, the patient may be able to exercise control of their body functions alone, without the assistance of a therapist or technology. Depending on the technique, biofeedback typically involves between 10 and 50 sessions over several weeks to learn self-regulation.

Biofeedback is considered very safe and can be used in conjunction with other therapies or treatments to improve their effectiveness. It can also be used as an independent treatment alternative, especially for patients who do not respond well to or have adverse effects with traditional medical therapies Thus it may not only help eliminate side effects but also reduce the patient’s need for medications. However, biofeedback may sometimes interfere with some medications, therefore, the patient should always discuss this therapy with their doctor.

Where to Get More Information: The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback