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Complementary Healthcare Information Service - UK

Biofeedback

Biofeedback helps people regulate some aspect of their body by using signals from the body. The essence of Biofeedback training, as of all learning and training, is Knowledge of Results; Biofeedback instruments tell you what is happening in one or another part of your body, so you can regulate it better and feel better.

There is a variety of kinds of instruments, from simple to complex, of prices, from below £100 to many thousands ££, and of help or training needed to start using the instruments, from Nil to some days.

Biofeedback has been used for more than a generation by clinics, hospitals, many kinds of therapist and by individuals who feel better for using it, or who are exploring their personal growth and development.

What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback instruments come in several kinds. They all connect to the body and provide a signal back to the user, often a sound or a meter reading or a computer graphic, which tells the user what is going on in that part of their body.

Biofeedback does not change you, you change, using the information from the instrument. If you don't want to change, don't waste your time with Biofeedback.

How does Biofeedback work?

It's simple; Biofeedback instruments tell you what is going on, and you can use what they tell you to improve your control of that aspect of your body's working.

To take a popular example, people can learn to improve the way they respond to stress by using instruments like the Relaxometer and the GSR2 to regulate their 'Fight or Flight' reaction when they come under stress. This reflex reaction produces a group of changes that we don't usually notice, including a rise in the electrical conductance of the skin. (If the stress is really severe you may break out in a sweat, all over! This is an extreme example of that kind of change.)

These instruments measure the change and produce a sound (and maybe a meter reading) which tells you at once when you get more upset or tense and when you relax, even a little bit.

By practising in a quiet place, and rehearsing in your mind stressful situations that you have faced (or might face) you can learn how to relax quickly, and so how to manage yourself better in the stressful situations. Then you can apply what you have learned even when you are not using the instrument. You have learned the skill of calming down and use it when you need it.

Anyone can do this, including children and very old people, without the need for a therapist. Where someone has developed a complex and long-standing problem they may need the help of a psychologist or other professional therapist.

Are there other kinds of Biofeedback?

Yes, there are many; in fact is seems likely that if a person can get immediate knowledge of changes in some part of their body they can learn to regulate that part of the body. But only some of the successful research results have been taken up by therapists.

Many Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy departments of hospitals use feedback of muscle tension. While you may be well able to tense or relax a muscle when you want to, people who have had a stroke, or been born with cerebral palsy, or been injured in an accident, can't make their muscles do what they want. Some (but not all) of these people can learn to improve control of their muscles again. And they improve more with Biofeedback than without - there is a large body of research literature about it.

This type of feedback is called Electro-Myo-Graphic feedback, or EMG. Very effective work on managing urinary incontinence in women has been done with EMG Biofeedback.

Some people learn a pattern of responding in their muscles to stressful situations. If this is sustained it can become painful, and then it is useful to apply EMG feedback to learning to relax the tense muscles. 'Stiff Neck' pain and writer's cramp can be relieved in this way.

Migraine headaches respond very well to Biofeedback training in relaxation, either by training in finger-warming, or just using the skin conductance feedback described above.

Feedback of brain electrical activity, EEG, has been available for many years. The brain rhythm called Alpha occurs more in people meditating than when they are not meditating, and many people use EEG feedback to enhance their meditative state. Alpha activitiy also seems to be incompatible with anxiety, and so training in Alpha activity has been used in hospitals to help deal with chronic anxiety.

There is a growing interest in training EEG patterns in children to help them with Attention Deficit Disorder and in working with adults with substance abuse problems in a similar way. This involves expensive computer systems and does require a trained therapist. It offers the prospect of training a person to produce some partcular sort of EEG patterns which are associated with a particular psychological state, and will be a very exciting area for further work.

Don't let anyone tell you 'Scientists don't understand how Biofeedback works...' It is like learning to talk. You know you are speaking right when you talk like the people around you; you are using auditory feedback to do this, and deaf people can't have that feedback so they need help learning to talk. With feedback you get better at speaking.

With feedback from your bathroom scales you can learn you are losing weight; with feedback from his mirror and his partner :-) a man learns to shave properly. This feedback or knowledge of results is essential to all learning. Biofeedback applies the principle to learning to control your body, and leads to control of aspects that used to be thought of as 'just automatic' but actually can be altered, like blood pressure and heart rate. But it only works if you, the user, want to change.

There is a great deal of successful work on managing high blood pressure (BP). It is particularly relevant to use Biofeedback if there seems to be a psychological component to the high BP, and much less so if there is a clear medical condition, such as kidney failure, causing the high BP.

What else may Biofeedback help with?

The list of ailments which have been helped by Biofeedback is long. About 20 appear below. There is a longer list (with some duplication) on the web site of the professional body: Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, www.aapb.org and then look at Potential Clients. This site is an important source of information about the field.

Anxiety, Back ache, Blushing, Bruxism, Clammy hands, Dysmenorrhea, Headache, High Blood Pressure, Migraines, Muscle spasms, Paralysis, Phobia, Raynaud's syndrome, Spasticity, Sleep problems, Stammering, Stiff neck, Stress, Tension headaches, TMJ Syndrome, Trouble with people (boss, family etc.)

If you study Meditation learning to control brain electrical activity (EEG) will be of interest to you.

There are many more kinds of Biofeedback, and uses for them, though some of them are awkward to use or are only anecdotal and have not become accepted practice.

Some idea of the extent of sound scientific research about Biofeedabck can be obtained from the site of the Association for Applied Psycho- physiology and Biofeedback mentioned above: www.aapb.org

There is a substantial peer-reviewed quarterly scientific Journal about work in the field, published continuously since 1975, titled "Applied Pshychophysiology And Biofeedback" and published by Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers in Dordrecht, Netherlands, and New York, USA. Many professional journals have published work on the application of Biofeedback to their particular field.

Article written by L van Someren (c) Aleph One Limited 2005
www.aleph1.co.uk/bio

 

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