Alternative Treatments: Biofeedback

Patient Expert

An acquaintance who sings in a choir with me recently told me of his experiences using biofeedback to reduce stress and to manage his high blood pressure. He said that he found it to be a fascinating experience in self-awareness. Also, for the year that he used biofeedback, he was able to consciously decrease his blood pressure and reduce stress. He seemed to be so positive about his experience that I thought I would explore this therapy in more depth.

Biofeedback is a treatment technique used by doctors, physical therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists or other health care professionals to help train a patient to self control specific physiological functions using signals given off by their own bodies. For example, an electrode attached to a sensor may send a signal that a person's neck and back muscles are extremely tense. The patient would use that information to direct relaxation techniques in order to relax those muscles. The patient may also learn how to recognize what circumstances or stressful events help cause that tension. From that point, the patient can be taught how to cope with those situations to avoid developing tense muscles or feelings of anxiety.

Biofeedback is used to treat many conditions reducing stress and anxiety, decreasing blood pressure, learning to regain movement after a stroke or strengthening the pelvic walls to treat urinary incontinence. Although research studies show mixed results for using biofeedback as rheumatoid arthritis treatment, it may be beneficial for some symptoms or triggers that can cause a person to flare, such as stress or insomnia.

The goal of biofeedback is to train the patient to recognize the events or circumstances that cause their health symptoms, and to concentrate on their own bodies in order to self-regulate some physical ailments. This can involve practicing biofeedback techniques or relaxation techniques every day. For treatment of anxiety or stress, it also may include changing bad habits or changing habitual reactions to stress. The sessions can last from 30 to 60 minutes. The duration and frequency of sessions are determined by the health care professional providing the training, who will evaluate the patient's progress and condition at each session. As sessions decrease, the patient will use what she has learned and apply those techniques to her everyday life.

There are various types of biofeedback machines and treatment techniques. For example, an electromyogram (EMG) measures muscle tension through electrodes placed on the skin over the muscles to be tested. This is often used for treating back and neck pain or tension, tension headaches and muscles that have been paralyzed by stroke. Temperature biofeedback is often used to regulate circulatory disorders by monitoring skin temperature. Other types of machines are used to measure everything from sweat gland activity (used to treat phobias, anxiety and excessive sweating), to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to treat anxiety, sleep disorders and epilepsy.

On the down side, biofeedback therapy is often not covered by insurance and treatments can be expensive over time. That was the main reason my friend from choir reluctantly quit his sessions. My friend also found over time that because of his strong family history of high blood pressure and other risk factors, biofeedback was unlikely to continue to be an effective solo treatment for him.

Have you used biofeedback therapy to treat rheumatoid arthritis symptoms like chronic pain or stress, or to treat some other ailment? Did you find it to be helpful? Or perhaps you've had trouble either finding a health care practitioner trained in biofeedback techniques or encountered insurance payment difficulties? Read more on HealthCentrals Rheumatiod Arthritis page.