Living With Chronic Pain

What Is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is built on the concept of “mind over matter.” The idea is that, with proper techniques, you can change your health by being mindful of how your body responds to stressors. It’s a noninvasive way to help you learn how you react to different stimuli and then how to modify that response. This information can help us develop better control over certain bodily functions that affect pain.  

By promoting a more effective mental and physical response, biofeedback aims to help control body processes that were once thought to be completely involuntary, such as heart rate, blood pressure and even muscle tension. Multiple studies have shown benefits with tension headaches, fibromyalgia, and chronic pain syndromes. There’s no question my pain increases with stress- whether from physical or emotional causes. I can feel my muscles tighten and spasm. Decreasing this automatic response is the goal behind biofeedback. Electrical sensors are strategically placed and then connected to a monitor. These sensors measure one or more signs of stress through:

  • Brain waves: This type uses scalp sensors to monitor your brain waves using an electroencephalograph (EEG).
  • Breathing: During respiratory biofeedback, bands are placed around your abdomen and chest to monitor your breathing patterns and respiration rate.
  • Heart rate: This type uses finger or earlobe sensors with a device used to detect blood volume changes (photoplethysmograph). Or sensors placed on your chest, lower torso or wrists use an electrocardiograph (ECG) to measure your heart rate and how your heart rate varies.
  • Muscle contraction: This type involves placing sensors over your skeletal muscles with an electromyograph (EMG) to monitor the electrical activity that causes muscle contraction.
  • Sweat gland activity: Sensors attached around your fingers or on your palm or wrist with an electrodermograph (EDG) measure the activity of your sweat glands and the amount of perspiration on your skin, alerting you to anxiety.
  • Temperature: Sensors attached to your fingers or feet measure blood flow to your skin. Because your temperature often drops when you’re under stress, a low reading can prompt you to begin relaxation techniques.

These parameters are then viewed as a sound, a flashing light, or a pattern change on a video screen that tells you that a physiological change has occurred. Gradually, with the help of your biofeedback therapist, you can learn to alter the signal by taking conscious control of your body’s automatic responses.

Through biofeedback you can learn techniques to lower your heart rate through breathing and mental exercises and relaxation techniques. Since you can actually see the improvements these techniques are providing on the monitor, it reinforces and encourages further progress. This can then be translated to the real world. When you feel stressed and your muscles start to tighten, heart rate increases, and your breathing gets faster, you can stop the process before it escalates.

Biofeedback can also be used for a variety of other medical issues including :

  • Anxiety or stress
  • Asthma
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Chemotherapy side effects
  • Constipation
  • Fecal incontinence
  • High blood pressure
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Raynaud’s disease
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Stroke
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
  • Urinary incontinence

A typical biofeedback session lasts between 30 and 60 minutes. The number of sessions needed to resolve an issue will vary depending on a number of factors, including how quickly you learn to control your physical responses. There are also commercial biofeedback devices available on the open market that are meant for home use. These devices offer handheld monitors and ones that connect to your computer. However, be careful of scams. Not all manufacturers are reputable. 

Unfortunately, there are no state laws regulating the training of biofeedback therapists, but many voluntarily obtain a certificate from the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (BCIA) as proof of their education, experience, and professionalism. Ask your provider if they have any recommendations. 

Once mastered, biofeedback can be used anywhere at anytime. It is a safe form of therapy that is a noninvasive, reasonable alternative to medications that helps us feel more in control of our health. Why not add it to your arsenal against pain?


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