Biofeedback: Does it Really Work?

Biofeedback Does it Really WorkTo answer, Biofeedback: Does it really work?  Yes, it really does.  There is overwhelming research that determines its value in healthcare. 

Researchers may not be exactly clear how or why biofeedback (BF) works, but they do know that it promotes relaxation, which can help relieve several conditions that are related to stress. 

This technique measures body functions and provides information so we can learn how to control those functions.  Biofeedback is a training process usually using electronic devices. 

Conditions in which biofeedback works well:

  • pain
  • headaches
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • incontinence
  • high blood pressure

In short, our body functions change when we are under stress.  Our heart rate speeds up, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, we start to sweat, and our breathing speeds up. 

Furthermore, we learn to become aware of these stress responses as they happen on the monitor and then get immediate feedback as we attempt to manage our stress. 

One study reviewed biofeedback use indicating that it can improve both physiological and psychological indicators of stress.  Best of all, BF may provide an accessible and low-cost addition to stress interventions. 

Another study that looked at persons with certain disease processes with high stress jobs found that BF improved blood pressure and specific abnormal lab levels such as glucose and lipid profiles.

Is biofeedback training painful?

I have never experienced any discomfort.  Using BF involves electrodes touching your skin, usually snugly secured, including finger sensors.  These electrodes/sensors send signals to a monitor, which displays a sound, flash of light, or image that represents your heart or breathing rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, sweating, or muscle activity, depending on the BF device you use.

My BF monitor from the early 90’s was purchased at Radio Shack for less than thirteen dollars (yes, less than thirteen dollars).  You can’t find them like that now.  It involved two sensors that wrapped around two fingers and relayed a high pitch beeping tone.  My understanding is it measures galvanic skin response, a change in the electrical resistance of the skin caused by the stress response.

In a way it can be stressful just listening to the high pitch beeping, so I was motivated to “master the machine.”  This method of biofeedback motivated me (increased awareness) to clear my mind and consciously relax my muscles to achieve a slower, more quiet beeping from the monitor.  Thus, eliciting a relaxation response for myself.

To be clear, bf did help me become quite aware of my stress levels and muscle tensions in my body.  Yes, biofeedback works for me.  That is, I was able to get instant feedback and after practice, eventually did not need the machine to achieve a relaxed state.

Does biofeedback work with different relaxation exercises?

Yes, to aid BF, one or a combination of several relaxation methods can be utilized.

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Autogenic Training
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Guided imagery
  • Mindfulness meditation

However, like being taught how to tie our shoes, we take an active role and practice BF training to develop the skill.

 BF devices:

  • Electromyogram (EMG) – Measures muscle activity and tension
  • Thermal – Measures skin temperature
  • Neurofeedback or electroencephalography (EEG) – Measures brain waves
  • Electrodermal activity (EDA) – Measures sweating
  • Heart rate variability (HRA) – Measures heart rate

BF sessions are typically done in a therapist’s office, anywhere from 1 to 1/12 hours in length for several sessions.  There are computer programs that connect the biofeedback sensor to your own computer.  My monitor is small and independent of a computer and was self-initiated from home.

To reinforce, biofeedback works but it is not a passive activity.  Like learning a new language, the participant must be an active learner.

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