What Is Biofeedback and How Does It Work?

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Biofeedback is a mind-body technique that involves using visual or auditory feedback to gain control over involuntary bodily functions. This may include gaining voluntary control over such things as heart rate, muscle tension, blood flow, pain perception and blood pressure. This process involves being connected to a device with sensors that provide feedback about specific aspects of your body.

A Closer Look at Biofeedback

The goal of biofeedback is often to make subtle changes to the body that result in a desired effect. This might include relaxing certain muscles slowing heart rate or respiration, or reducing feelings of pain. By doing this, people are often able to improve their physical, emotional, and mental health. For example, biofeedback can also be used to help people better manage the symptoms of a condition.

The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback defines biofeedback as a process that allows people to alter their physiological activity in order to improve health or performance. Utilizing precise measurement instruments, information about the body's functions are provided to the user.

"The presentation of this information — often in conjunction with changes in thinking, emotions, and behavior — supports desired physiological changes. Over time, these changes can endure without continued use of an instrument," they suggest.

Types of Biofeedback

There are many different types of biofeedback. The specific approach you choose to utilize might depend upon what you hope to accomplish and what your therapist or physician recommends.

Some of the available options include:

Breathing: Respiratory biofeedback involves wearing sensor bands around the chest and abdomen to monitor breathing rates and patterns. With training, people can learn to have greater control over their breathing rates which can help in a variety of situations.

Heart rate: This type is known as heart rate variability biofeedback and has been shown to be useful as a treatment for a number of different disorders including asthma and depression. Patients using this type of biofeedback wear a device connected to sensors in either the ears or fingers or sensors placed on the wrists, chest, or torso. These devices measure heart rate as well as heart rate variability.

Galvanic skin response: This type of biofeedback involves measuring the amount of sweat on the surface of the skin. Galvanic skin response, also known as skin conductance, is a useful marker for detecting levels of emotional arousal. Aside from the obvious thermoregulatory function of sweat, emotional stimulation can also easily trigger sweating. The more strongly people are aroused, the stronger their skin conductance will be.

Blood pressure: This type of biofeedback involves wearing a device that measures blood pressure. These devices provide information about the patient's blood pressure and often guide the user through relaxation techniques that may rely on visual cues, breathing exercises, or music. While such devices have gained popularity, one study reviewing eight previous trials did not find convincing evidence that this type of biofeedback has any lasting long-term impact on hypertension.

Skin temperature: In this form of biofeedback, patients wear sensors that detect blood flow to the skin. Because people often experience a drop in body temperature during times of stress, such devices can help people better detect when they are starting to feel distressed. A low reading on one of these monitors can indicate a need to utilize some stress management techniques.

Brain waves: This type of biofeedback, often referred to as neurofeedback, involves utilizing electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain wave activity. Scalp sensors are connected to an EEG device. Neurofeedback is sometimes used as a non-invasive treatment for ADHD, pain, addiction, anxiety, depression, and other disorders.

Muscle tension: In this type of biofeedback, sensors are placed at various points on the body and connected to an electromyography (EMG) device. This device detects changes in muscle tension over time by monitoring electrical activity that results in muscle contractions.

How Is Biofeedback Used?

Biofeedback can be used for a range of applications, including:

  • Treating tension headaches, migraines, and other pain
  • Controlling high and low blood pressure
  • Alleviating digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome
  • Helping patients control physical reactions to stress or anxiety
  • Aiding in relaxation and stress management
  • EEG feedback has also been shown to be effective in treating and managing symptoms of certain brain injuries, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Biofeedback is particularly useful for managing stress as well as symptoms of conditions that may be exacerbated by stress. For example, therapists might use biofeedback to help patients control their response to stress. Chronic stress can have a wide range of negative health effects including decreased immunity, heart disease, depression, digestive problems, and sleep disorders. By learning how to manage the stress response using biofeedback, patients are able to decrease the harmful physical and psychological effects of stress.

How Does Biofeedback Work?

So how exactly does biofeedback work? By learning how to recognize the physical signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as increased heart rate, body temperature, and muscle tension, people are able to learn how to relax. Scientists believe that it is often the stress response, the body's tendency to go into a state of "fight-or-flight" in order to deal with potential threats, that often exacerbates certain conditions. By learning how to control physiological responses to stress, biofeedback patients are able to learn how to relax their minds and bodies and better cope with the symptoms of stress.

So what is a typical biofeedback session like? Electrical sensors will be connected to specific areas of your body, depending upon the type of response that is being measured. These sensors will be connected to a measurement device that will provide feedback on your physical responses. During your session, your therapist will guide you through different mental exercises that may involve visualization, meditation, breathing, or relaxation techniques. As you perform these activities, you will receive information on your physical response from the measurement device.

How Long Does Biofeedback Take?

A biofeedback session will often last between 30 and 60 minutes. The duration of treatment and the number of sessions required depends on many factors, including how well you respond to the training, the condition you are focusing on, and your goals for treatment. A typical course of treatment often includes 4 to 6 sessions, although 8 to 10 sessions are also not uncommon.

How Much Does Biofeedback Cost?

Costs for biofeedback can vary considerably, often ranging from $35 to $85 per biofeedback session. Fees can vary depending upon the training, qualification, and experience of the biofeedback therapist.

There are also a number of in-home biofeedback devices and wearables available on the market. Such devices can range considerably in price, with some costing as low as $20 and more expensive ones costing thousands.

How Effective Is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is often considered a type of training, rather than a treatment. With training and practice, biofeedback can be used to help people develop new skills that may help them to better cope or perform. In order to be effective, biofeedback requires that patients play an active role in their treatment. Success also usually requires that patients regularly practice between training sessions.

Biofeedback Devices

Biofeedback devices utilized for clinical purposes are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Biofeedback devices are often available through a biofeedback therapist's office or the office of another health practitioner.

There are also a number of biofeedback devices that can be purchased for personal, in-home use. Such devices often involve wearing sensors that record information and can then be plugged into a computer. Other wearable devices utilize sensors that you wear that then provide information via an app on your mobile device.

A quick perusal of biofeedback devices available through online retailers such as Amazon.com reveals a number of wearable instruments ranging from muscle sensors to skin response units to brain wave monitors. Such devices make a wide variety of claims and target a number of different ailments such as migraines, pelvic floor weakness, snoring, depression, ADHD, autism, sleep disruptions, and more.

Before you purchase any type of personal biofeedback device, spend some time examining the claims. Many such devices make claims that are highly exaggerated and not supported by research. It is important to know that most of the devices you see available for purchase have not been evaluated for safety or effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration. Talk to your therapist about which devices they recommend.

Reasons to Use Biofeedback

Like other approaches to treatment, biofeedback has both its own set of upsides and downsides. It may not be right for everyone, so it is important to consider the benefits and risks before you determine if it the best choice for your situation. So what are some of the reasons why you might consider using biofeedback?

It Can Be an Alternative or Addition to Other Treatments

Biofeedback may appeal in situations where other treatments have not been effective or where people are unable to take certain medications. Because biofeedback is non-invasive, patients may prefer it in situations where other treatments may be more invasive or disrupting.

Biofeedback training can also be used as one part of a treatment approach. People often choose to utilize biofeedback to augment other treatments.

You Want to Better Manage Your Stress

Biofeedback also teaches people how to control their own responses in stressful situations, which can help people feel more in control. This can help people better manage the stress they may face in their daily life, cope with feelings of anxiety, or handle stress that results from another health condition.

Other Mental Health Benefits of Biofeedback

In addition to helping people better manage stress and other conditions, biofeedback can also have additional mental health benefits. The training process can help people learn new techniques for managing their anxiety and emotional responses. Such training can also help people take charge of their health, which may help people feel more empowered and in control.

What Are the Risks of Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is generally thought of as a safe procedure, but you should always talk to your physician or therapist about your options before you begin. Biofeedback is not necessarily right for everyone and there may be other approaches that might work better for your unique situation. If you do decide that biofeedback is right for you, be sure to check on the credentials of the professional treating you and be aware of the possible costs of your biofeedback trainings including the cost per session and expenses associated with devices you may need to purchase.

A Word From Verywell

Biofeedback is one options that may help you gain greater control over your physical responses and behaviors. Consider the potential benefits, risks, and costs associated with this type of training before you decide if it might be right for you.

View Article Sources
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  • Greenhalgh, J, Dickson, R., & Dundar, Y. Biofeedback for hypertension: A systemic review. Journal of Hypertension. 2010;28(4):644-652. doi: 10.1097/HJH.0b013e3283370e20.
  • Lehrer, PM, & Gevirtz, R. Heart rate variability biofeedback: How and why does it work? Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:756. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00756.