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.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 01, 2006
5 min read

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.

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:

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.

Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback that is being used to treat children with ADHD. "In the last five to 10 years, data is beginning to emerge showing this to be a very promising new treatment," Baskin tells WebMD. "I think it's going to gradually become the standard of care for ADD and ADHD. Training sessions are getting shorter, equipment is getting better, and combined with very good therapy, the data [on effectiveness] is looking very good."

One study found an improvement in impulsiveness, inattention and functioning in school after 40 neurofeedback sessions combined with teaching strategies.

"Biofeedback can not only help a child use brainwaves they don't usually employ, but it may also help increase blood flow to specific parts of the brain involved with ADHD," said Joel Lubar, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in a previous interview. Lubar developed the ADHD treatment in the 1970s.

"Used with behavior therapies that incorporate classroom and homework skills, neurofeedback can help these children become less dependent on stimulants like Ritalin," Lubar told WebMD.

Biofeedback is also being used to help treat depression, addiction, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Medicare has recently approved biofeedback training for urinary and fecal incontinence treatment in elderly men and women. "Incontinence is the No. 1 reason why people are placed in long-term care facilities," Baskin tells WebMD. "Through biofeedback, elderly people can learn something similar to Kegel exercises -- contracting and controlling bladder and bowel muscles. The data on effectiveness is fairly spectacular. And they can learn it in a doctor's office. A lot of urology practices are doing it now."

For people with diabetes, stress can wreak havoc with a variety of hormones that affect blood sugar control. Through biofeedback and relaxation exercises, it's possible to reduce this stress reaction, research shows.

Neurofeedback is helping epilepsy patients reduce the frequency of their seizures.

"In people with epilepsy, part of the brain has become unstable, and occasionally it triggers the rest of the brain into seizure," explained Siegfried Othmer, PhD, an Encino, Calif., physicist who trains biofeedback therapists, in a previous interview. Neurofeedback may help stabilize those circuits and reduce the occurrence of seizures.

Many psychologists, professional counselors, social workers, and other health care professionals are trained in biofeedback, neurotherapy, neurofeedback, and EEG biofeedback. The Association for Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback has more information about this therapy and about finding a good practitioner. Also, The Biofeedback Certification Institute of America can help you find a certified and licensed practitioner.

Published Jan. 24, 2005.
Medically updated March 2006.