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Biofeedback

Other common name(s): none

Scientific/medical name(s): none

Description

Biofeedback is a treatment method that uses monitoring devices to help people consciously control physical processes that are usually controlled automatically, such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, sweating, and muscle tension.

Overview

Biofeedback is one of several relaxation methods that was evaluated and found to be of possible benefit by an independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The panel found it a somewhat useful complementary therapy for treating chronic pain. The panel also found that, while biofeedback might help with some sleep problems (such as insomnia), its effect on how long it took to fall asleep and total sleep time were uncertain. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that biofeedback can influence the development or progression of cancer; however, it can help to improve quality of life for some people with cancer.

How is it promoted for use?

Biofeedback is used to help a person regulate specific body functions. By helping a patient change his or her heart rate, skin temperature, breathing rate, muscle tension and other such activity in the body, biofeedback can reduce stress and muscle tension from a number of causes. It can promote relaxation, help correct urinary incontinence, and treat migraines and less serious headaches. It helps some people with Raynaud disease (problems of blood circulation that make the fingers and toes feel very cold, numb, or even painful) increase the temperature of their hands and toes. Through a greater awareness of bodily functions, it can help a person regulate or alter other physical functions that may be causing discomfort. Biofeedback is also useful in retraining muscles after injury, or in teaching muscles to take over for other muscles that can no longer perform as needed.

What does it involve?

Monitoring devices are used to amplify physical processes that are hard to detect without help. This information is then “fed back” in the form of a continuous signal (such as a tone or image readout). The person can adjust his or her thinking, emotional state, or other mental processes to focus on changing the signal and controlling his or her bodily functions.

For example, under the guidance of a biofeedback therapist, the patient concentrates on changing a specific physical process, such as heart rate, temperature, perspiration, blood flow, brain activity, or muscle tension. A monitor connected via electrodes to the patient's skin measures changes in the function the patient is trying to alter. Tones or images produced by the monitor inform the patient when he or she achieves the desired results. The process is repeated as often as necessary until the patient can reliably use conscious thought to change physical functions. After this is learned, the biofeedback equipment is no longer needed, although some patients return to have their condition monitored and repeat their biofeedback sessions.

There are at least 5 different ways to measure bodily functions for biofeedback purposes.

  • An electromyogram (EMG) measures the electrical activity of muscles. It is used in conventional medicine to diagnose a variety of nerve and muscle diseases and in biofeedback to help heal muscle injuries and relieve chronic pain and some types of incontinence.
  • Thermal biofeedback provides information about skin temperature, which is a good indicator of blood flow. Several health problems such as migraine headaches, Raynaud disease, anxiety, and high blood pressure are related to blood flow.
  • Electrodermal activity (EDA) shows changes in perspiration rate, which is an indicator of anxiety.
  • Finger pulse measurements are used to reflect high blood pressure, heart beat irregularities, and anxiety.
  • Breathing rate is also monitored. This measurement is used to treat asthma and hyperventilation and to promote relaxation.
  • Biofeedback is often a matter of trial and error as patients learn to adjust their thinking and connect changes in thought, breathing, posture, and muscle tension with changes in physical functions that are usually controlled unconsciously.

What is the history behind it?

For centuries, followers of ancient Eastern practices such as meditation and yoga have claimed they could control physical processes usually considered beyond the power of conscious thought. Studies on how biofeedback works were not conducted until the 1970s. Originally, it was used by counselors, psychologists, and other mental health professionals. Today, physicians and other health care professionals in the United States use biofeedback as a complementary therapy to promote relaxation and treat headaches, migraines, and insomnia.

What is the evidence?

Although biofeedback has no direct effect on the development or progress of cancer, it can improve quality of life for some people with cancer. Research has found that biofeedback can be helpful for patients in regaining urinary and bowel control after surgery. A recent study looked at 125 men who were having surgery for prostate cancer. Of those who had biofeedback training to learn bladder control exercises before surgery, 6% still had urine leakage 6 months after surgery. Of the men who did not have the biofeedback training, nearly 20 percent had leakage six months after surgery.

In another clinical trial, relaxation therapy was more effective than biofeedback in reducing some side effects of chemotherapy. Biofeedback is often used with relaxation for the best results.

After looking at data on biofeedback, an NIH panel found the method is moderately effective for relieving many types of chronic pain, particularly tension headaches. Its benefit was less clear for sleep problems, since its effect on how long it took to fall asleep and how long a person stayed asleep was uncertain. The panel also found that biofeedback was better than relaxation therapy for treating migraine headaches. The effects of biofeedback vary significantly from person to person. Small studies have suggested that biofeedback may be used to improve circulation in people with diabetes and improve migraine headaches in children.

Are there any problems or complications?

Biofeedback is thought to be a safe technique. It is noninvasive and requires little effort. There have been occasional reports of dizziness, anxiety, disorientation, and a sensation of floating, which may be emotionally upsetting to some people. Biofeedback requires a trained and certified professional to manage equipment, interpret changes, and monitor the patient. Battery-operated devices sold for home use have not been found to be reliable.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Astin JA, Shapiro SL, Eisenberg DM, Forys KL. Mind-body medicine: state of the science, implications for practice. J Am Board Fam Pract. 2003;16:131-147.

Burgio KL, Goode PS, Urban DA, et al. Preoperative biofeedback assisted behavioral training to decrease post-prostatectomy incontinence: a randomized, controlled trial. J Urol. 2006;175:196-201. 

Burish TG, Jenkins RA. Effectiveness of biofeedback and relaxation training in reducing the side effects of cancer chemotherapy. Health Psychol. 1992;11:17-23.

Cassileth B. The Alternative Medicine Handbook: The Complete Reference Guide to Alternative and Complementary Therapies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton; 1998.

Ernst E, ed. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. New York: Mosby; 2001.

Fiero PL, Galper DI, Cox DJ, Phillips LH 2nd, Fryburg DA. Thermal biofeedback and lower extremity blood flow in adults with diabetes: is neuropathy a limiting factor? Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2003;28:193-203.

Mathewson-Chapman M. Pelvic muscle exercise/biofeedback for urinary incontinence after prostatectomy: an education program. J Cancer Educ. 1997;12:218-223.

Mind-body medicine: an overview. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Web site. Accessed at

http://nccam.nih.gov/health/backgrounds/mindbody.htm on June 12, 2008.

NIH Technology Assessment Panel. Integration of behavioral and relaxation approaches into the treatment of chronic pain and insomnia. JAMA. 1996;276:313-318.

Pain control: a guide for people with cancer and their families. National Cancer Institute Web site. Accessed at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/paincontrol on June 12, 2008.

Scharff L, Marcus DA, Masek BJ. A controlled study of minimal-contact thermal biofeedback treatment in children with migraine. J Pediatr Psychol. 2002;27:109-119.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.


Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008