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9 Biofeedback Basics

By Gay Falkowski


Each day when you wake up, your bodily functions begin reacting to internal and external events. Your heart beats faster, brainwaves accelerate, lungs breath more deeply, blood flows into muscles, and temperature rises. Throughout the day you’ll experience hundreds of thoughts and experiences that will affect you physiologically. Most of the time, you won’t notice these inner changes. They happen involuntarily. However, you can learn to alter some bodily functions by changing your thoughts and behavior using a technique called biofeedback. The goal of biofeedback is to improve a health condition or physical performance. Individuals with multiple sclerosis have used biofeedback to help cope with many different conditions related to MS, such as pain, stress, insomnia, incontinence, and constipation

The following facts explain more about biofeedback and what you might want to know about this type of therapy before trying it. Biofeedback is generally safe, but might not be appropriate for everyone. Be sure to discuss biofeedback with your doctor if you’re interested.

1. An initial assessment/diagnostic session with a biofeedback therapist gives you an opportunity to ask questions and develop expectations. The session allows the therapist to evaluate your condition, establish baselines, and understand what kind of help you’re seeking. If you choose to follow through, you and your therapist agree on a plan.

2. To prepare for biofeedback, your therapist places electrical sensors on your body. The sensors don’t hurt. Their purpose is to record and deliver information (feedback) about your body (bio). Depending on your health problems and goals, your biofeedback target areas and methods can include:
  • Brainwave. This type of method uses scalp sensors to monitor your brain waves using an electroencephalograph.
  • Breathing. During respiratory biofeedback, bands are placed around your abdomen and chest to monitor your breathing pattern and respiration rate.
  • Heart rate. This type of biofeedback can be done using finger or earlobe sensors with a device called a photoplethysmograph. Or, sensors can be placed on your chest, lower torso, or wrists using an electrocardiograph to measure your heart rate and heart rate variability.
  • Muscle. This method of biofeedback involves placing sensors over your skeletal muscles with an electromyography to monitor the electrical activity that causes muscle contraction.
  • Sweat glands. Sensors attached around your fingers or on your palm or wrist with an electrodermograph measure the activity of your sweat glands and the amount of perspiration on your skin. This type of feedback alerts you to anxiety.
  • Temperature. Sensors attached to your fingers or feet measure your 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

3. The sensors relay your physiological signals to a biofeedback device, which converts the signals into meaningful information you can understand. Depending on the device being used, feedback will be tracked and displayed on a monitor, or communicated via a beeping sound or a flashing light.

4. A therapist helps you associate the feedback with your issues. For example, biofeedback can pinpoint tense muscles likely causing headaches or other pain. Next, you and the therapist identify what you’re doing to make the muscles tense. You learn how to reduce the tension using physical skills, and then practice releasing the tension. If your goal is to lower heart rate, your therapist will lead you through breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and mental exercises. You can measure the results of these techniques and exercises on a monitor. Seeing your heart rate go down encourages even more positive reactions and relaxation.

5. With practice, biofeedback therapy empowers you to control your body’s physiological reactions by changing your thoughts, emotions, or behavior. Ideally, you eventually won’t need a feedback device to identify when you need to make changes. You’ll know how to do the exercises and techniques on your own.

6. A typical biofeedback session lasts 30 to 60 minutes. The length and number of sessions are determined by your condition and how quickly you learn to control your physical responses. Some cases require 10 to 15 sessions, while others need many more. Your therapist should let you know how well you’re progressing.

7. Session fees vary depending upon the training, qualification, and experience of the biofeedback therapist. In general, pricing can range from $40 per session to more than $100 per session. Health insurance or Medicare doesn’t always cover biofeedback, especially when it’s not considered to be “reasonable and necessary”. Contact your health insurance provider before starting biofeedback to determine if it’s covered and what your portion of the costs will be.

8. Biofeedback can be safely integrated into your current MS treatment plan. Never discontinue any medication without first consulting your doctor.

9. You can receive biofeedback training in physical therapy clinics, medical centers, and hospitals. State laws regulating biofeedback practitioners vary. Most states do not restrict who can perform biofeedback services. A person without clinical training of any kind or specialized training in biofeedback may claim to provide biofeedback services. Ask a potential biofeedback therapist questions before starting treatment, such as:
  • Are you licensed, certified or registered?
  • What is your training and experience?
  • Do you have experience providing feedback for my condition?
  • How many biofeedback sessions do you think I'll need?
  • What's the cost, and is it covered by health insurance?
  • Can you provide a list of references?