What is biofeedback?

Biofeedback is the process of using feedback to learn what is going on in your body so you can control different body functions in order to improve your health.

Suppose you suffer from frequent headaches. If someone asks you if you feel muscle tension in your head, you answer, No, it feels normal to me. Let’s say on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being extreme tension and 1 being completely relaxed, the tension in your forehead was measured at an 8/10. You have lived with tension for so long, that an 8 feels normal to you.

The process of biofeedback would let you know how much muscle tension you are carrying in your head, and that lower levels of tension are possible. With training, you learn to bring your forehead level of tension down to a 2 or a 3, and you notice that you rarely have headaches anymore.

This is the process of biofeedback.

How does it work?

During a biofeedback session, different types of sensors may be attached to your body and the signals are displayed on a computer monitor. With visual and auditory feedback, you learn to associate how you are feeling with the feedback you are getting.

With the headache example above, you would learn to label what an 8 level of tension feels like, what a 7 level feels like, and so on. Eventually you become very good at listening to your body and learn how to stop tension before it gets too high.

What types of biofeedback are there?

Electromyography (EMG) measures muscle tension in the body. With EMG biofeedback, electrode sensors are placed over different muscle groups (such as the forehead or upper back) for monitoring.

Thermal biofeedback measures skin temperature. A small thermometer called a thermistor is placed on the skin using paper tape. Cold hands and feet may be an indicator of anxiety, stress or other conditions producing vasoconstriction. With feedback and practice, a person can learn how to warm his or her hands and improve overall circulation.

Electrodermal response (EDR) or skin conductance. This type of biofeedback basically measures how dry your skin is and is typically measured on the hand with sensors on two fingertips. Tension and anxiety can produce small or large amounts of moisture on the skin (“sweaty palms”). As a person relaxes, skin conductance increases, and the hands become warmer and dry.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV uses a small sensor on a fingertip or earlobe to measure beat-to-beat changes in your heart rate. A higher HRV is associated with better overall health and vitality. For a more detailed description of HRV, please click on the HRV Biofeedback menu item on the left side of this page.

Neurofeedback (EEG biofeedback). Small sensors are placed on different areas of the scalp to measure brainwave activity. With training, a person can consciously learn to control his or her brainwaves to improve functioning.

But aren’t things like skin temperature and heart rate or brain waves controlled by our nervous system and out of our control?

The beauty of biofeedback is that it has taught us what were thought to be involuntary functions not in our conscious control can indeed be regulated with our thoughts and consciousness. You may not know exactly how you are doing it, but you can still learn to modify these functions through practice!

What else happens in a biofeedback session?

Since stress is known to make many physical conditions worse, I teach patients a variety of relaxation techniques including muscle relaxation techniques, different breathing techniques, mind-quieting techniques and meditation. Learning these techniques helps a person learn to handle stress better and to keep lower levels of tension in the body.

Eventually, a person undergoing biofeedback training learns to get in touch with his or her body and can maintain a relaxed state without needing the biofeedback monitoring equipment. To do this, it is important to practice relaxation techniques on a regular basis in order to maintain treatment gains.

What is biofeedback helpful with?

Biofeedback has been shown to effective for a wide range of health problems including
ADD/ADHD, anxiety, asthma, back pain, bruxism (teeth clenching), chronic pain, chronic stress, fibromyalgia, headaches and migraines, high blood pressure, immune system issues, muscle spasms, panic attacks, PTSD and trauma, temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ) and Raynaud's disease.