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Biofeedback Trains Mind, Body to Make Changes

Migraines, ADHD, high blood pressure, epilepsy, and incontinence can all benefit from the technique of biofeedback. Part 1 of a 4-part series on alternative medicine.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Biofeedback: Sounds like science fiction? It's actually good medicine. Biofeedback is helping many gain control over common health problems like migraines, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy, diabetes, high blood pressure, and incontinence.

In fact, biofeedback is barely considered alternative medicine today, says Steven Baskin, PhD, director of the New England Institute for Behavioral Medicine in Stamford, Conn. Baskin is also president of the Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.

Biofeedback has won approval from a top watchdog group -- the American Health Care Policy Review board, Baskin says. The board conducted an exhaustive review of all reports on biofeedback as treatment for common and difficult-to-treat disorders like epilepsy and migraines.

"That group gave biofeedback a Grade A effectiveness rating, the highest level," Baskin tells WebMD.

What Exactly is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is a self-training, mind-over-body technique developed in the 1940s. Doing biofeedback has a slightly science fiction feel to it. But it's entirely legitimate, and it works. For example, a migraine sufferer may be able to train her body not to have migraines or to lessen the headaches' severity. Amazing, but true. It's a method in which you consciously control a body function that normally is regulated automatically by the body like skin temperature, heart rate, or blood pressure.

Here's what happens: You wear sensors on your head and elsewhere to let you "hear" or "see" certain bodily functions like pulse, digestion, body temperature, and muscle tension. The squiggly lines and/or beeps on monitors reflect what's going on inside your body. It's similar to watching a heart monitor in action.

Then you learn to control those beeps and squiggles. After a few sessions, there's no need for sensors or monitors. "Your mind trains your biological system to learn the skills," Baskin says.

Biofeedback is not hard to learn, Baskin tells WebMD. People have learned to control blood pressure, brain activity, bowel and bladder problems, digestion, muscle tension, nausea, heart rate, even sweat glands. Among the uses today:

Migraines and other headaches:

Biofeedback has gained widespread acceptance as a treatment for migraines. By learning biofeedback, migraine sufferers can short-circuit migraines and other headaches, or at least reduce the pain, Baskin tells WebMD. The trick may be by increasing blood flow to the hands. That diverts the excess blood flow from the head, which may contribute to the headaches.

Tension headaches, caused by tightened head muscles, also quiet down when biofeedback is used to relax those muscles, he adds.

"In times of high stress, or when they have a feeling of a headache coming on, hand warming and relaxation will decrease the eventuality of having a headache -- or at least one that's not as severe," says Baskin.

Studies show that a combination of medication and biofeedback has greater effect than either treatment alone, he says. Also, recent data have shown that long-term relief for migraine sufferers is better with biofeedback. In that study, a group trained in biofeedback had much lower recurrences of migraines, fewer hospitalizations, and lower cost of treatment since they could cut back on medications.

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