The mind-body therapy
by Archana Khambekar

Among the amazing capabilities of the human mind is its power to influence the course of healing. You can consciously direct blood to a specific part of your body, reduce muscle tension, raise your temperature, decrease your heart rate and alter your brain rhythms--in essence, you can "think" yourself to good health.

Biofeedback is a self-regulatory therapeutic practice that taps into this mind-body link. It's a non-invasive approach to wellness that trains you to manage your physical and mental processes to attain optimal health. And, unlike many alternative therapies, biofeedback is widely accepted by medical professionals as a valid technique.

The technique

Biofeedback works by "feeding back" information about your physiological processes so that you develop an awareness of these functions. As this awareness heightens, you learn to consciously control your normally automatic body functions. To help achieve this consciousness, therapists hook up patients to instruments that monitor internal responses with sensitivity and precision and convert them to visual or audible cues. The feedback relays information on muscle tension (EMG feedback), skin temperature (thermal feedback), brain waves (EEG feedback) and respiration. The monitoring instrument displays the results through sound or sight. The sound varies in pitch and visual meters vary in brightness as the response decreases or increases.

Using the cues provided by the device, patients adjust their thinking in order to regulate the pertinent body function. For instance, in electromyography or EMG feedback sensors are attached to the skin to measure muscle tension. If the monitor indicates that your muscles are tense, you consciously try to relax them. The monitor then displays the updated results. A slowing down of the signal shows that you have relaxed your muscles. With practice you learn what it feels like to be relaxed and how to alter your mental processes to achieve it.

The instruments are just the means to the end, which is to reach a level where you can affect bodily processes on your own without the aid of devices. Biofeedback works best when you are in a meditative state of deep relaxation. It is advisable to engage a qualified therapist to guide you through the exercise. A typical biofeedback program involves one-hour sessions once a week for 10 weeks, but this can vary depending on the individual response and the disorder being treated. Once you fine-tune your technique you practice it in your daily life to maintain your health.

Health benefits

Biofeedback is a therapeutic tool that aids in relieving pain, reconditioning muscles and promoting relaxation. It has emerged as a viable and scientifically based therapy for quite a list of health conditions.

  • Biofeedback is effective in stress management and in the treatment of stress-related ailments. It can be used preventively to protect your health from the effects of stress. For headaches, migraines, insomnia, high blood pressure, digestive disorders and other stress-triggered illnesses, biofeedback alleviates the intensity and reduces the need for medication.
  • Women who suffer from PMS experience relief on practicing biofeedback.
  • Children with attention deficit disorder show improvement in symptoms after undergoing EEG biofeedback. These findings were evidenced in several studies on EEG/neurofeedback. One such study was conducted by Michael Linden, Ph.D., director of ADD Treatment Centers located in Southern California who reported that children who received EEG biofeedback exhibited significant increases in IQ as well as significant decreases in inattentive behavior.
  • Neurofeedback is applied by psychologists in the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders.
  • Those who suffer from Raynaud's syndrome (a circulatory disorder that causes uncomfortably cold hands and feet) benefit from thermal biofeedback as it enables them to direct blood flow to their extremities.
  • In the field of physical rehabilitation, biofeedback is used to help stroke victims restore movement to paralyzed muscles.

The above list is hardly exhaustive. Advances in technology have further widened the scope of biofeedback. These include esophageal motility (the muscular action involved in swallowing), stomach acidity and the activity of the bladder muscle that controls urinary incontinence. From being a "fringe" therapy, biofeedback has evolved into an accepted treatment option that is applied by healthcare practitioners in diverse specialties. It has also received recognition from the National Institutes of Health.

If you would like to explore this alternative, a preliminary consultation with your physician can help evaluate the suitability of the therapy for you. You could also ask for a referral to a biofeedback specialist with the right credentials. Ideally the therapist should be certified by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America and have sufficient experience in attending to your specific health condition. In cases where biofeedback has been prescribed, some health insurance plans reimburse a part or all of the cost of the treatment, which can range from $35 to $85 per session.

The benefits of biofeedback extend beyond providing relief from physical symptoms. It is a therapy that promotes self-reliance by equipping us with specialized mind-body skills that can be applied to gain an overall sense of well being in everyday living.

&copy 1999-2005 Archana Khambekar, used by permission.

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