Complementary Therapies: Biofeedback

Can you slow your heart rate just by imagining a melting icicle? Or relax a tense muscle by recalling a favorite melody? If not, you might be able to learn these techniques through a process called biofeedback.

What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is a training technique that teaches people to consciously regulate their body functions. In biofeedback, electronic measuring instruments monitor body functions such as pulse rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. Patients learn how to control these physical measures by watching the signals and using mental techniques such as visualization or concentration. After some time and practice, the patient can apply the technique and achieve the desired result without being attached to the monitor.

For example, an electromyogram (EMG) machine measures muscle tension. Electrodes are attached over the muscle, and transmit information about muscle tension to a monitor. As the muscle tenses, a light flashes or a beep sounds. The intensity of the light or sound varies with the degree of tension in the muscle. To relax the muscle, a patient must first become aware of the body's signals. Then, by using mental processes, the patient can try to slow the flashing or beeping.

Other biofeedback machines measure skin temperature, changes in perspiration rates, finger pulse, breathing and brain-wave activity.

What Can It Help?

The National Institutes of Health has approved biofeedback as a complementary treatment for chronic pain and insomnia. In addition, biofeedback is used in many health care disciplines and may be helpful in treating:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis pain
  • Raynaud's phenomenon (a circulatory disorder that causes uncomfortably cold hands)
  • Tension and migraine headaches
  • Incontinence
  • Hypertension
  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Stress management
  • Physical rehabilitation
Getting Started

Although there are plenty of devices and computer programs available for home use, you shouldn't purchase any without first discussing your concerns with a qualified professional. If you're interested in trying biofeedback, talk to your physician. He or she may be able to recommend you to a certified biofeedback practitioner.

Biofeedback is not an invasive procedure and there are no side effects from its use. However, it may require a significant time commitment and may be costly as well. Techniques that work for one person may not work for another, so it's largely a matter of trial-and-error. You have to consciously adjust your thought processes to regulate body functions that generally occur automatically.

Biofeedback can be a helpful additional treatment in many cases. But it is not a substitute for regular visits to your physician, especially if you have a chronic condition or are recovering from an acute muscle injury.

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Last reviewed: July 2007
Copyright 2007 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons