September 24, 2013 in Features

Monitor body’s responses with biofeedback

Anthony L. Komaroff M.D.

DEAR DOCTOR K: You’ve mentioned biofeedback as a treatment option for several conditions, but I still don’t understand what it is. Could you explain?

DEAR READER: Biofeedback is a technique that helps you monitor and control your body’s responses. By learning to control certain functions, you can improve your medical condition, relieve chronic pain, reduce stress, or improve your physical or mental performance.

During biofeedback training, a therapist attaches sensors to your body. The type and placement of sensors varies according to what is being measured. Sensors can detect changes in everything from your heart rate, skin temperature or muscle tension to your brain-wave patterns.

The machine then translates its measurements into a form of immediate “feedback.” You might see the feedback as a blinking light, a beeping sound, a balloon or a graph. (I’ve put an illustration of what a biofeedback setup for urinary incontinence might look like on my website,

Let’s say your goal is to reduce neck, shoulder and upper back pain. Biofeedback can help you recognize when you tense the muscles in your back, neck, shoulders or head. It can help you relax them before you experience pain, or it can help you learn to relax muscles that are already in pain.

Or say you are learning to control your breathing when you are in pain. A balloon on the screen of the biofeedback machine may represent your breathing rate. You can learn to inflate and deflate the balloon at the target rate. As you gain control over the target body function, you’ll be weaned off the machine.

After each session, you’ll get an assignment to practice at home. Regular practice is essential to success.

Biofeedback is effective for certain types of urinary and fecal incontinence. It helps with anal pain related to excessive muscle contractions and constipation caused by problems with the muscles in the anus. It also helps people who suffer from Raynaud’s phenomenon, tension headaches and fibromyalgia.

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