DEAR DOCTOR K: Sometimes you recommend biofeedback as treatment. What exactly is it? What is it like to go through it?
DEAR READER: Biofeedback is a technique that helps you monitor and control how your body responds to external stimuli. 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 or a graph.
Let’s say your goal is to reduce neck, shoulder and upper back pain. Biofeedback can help you recognize when you are increasing the tension in the muscles in your back, neck, shoulders or head. Tension can increase without your knowing it. By learning that it is, you can take steps to relax your muscles before you experience pain.
Or say you are learning to control your breathing when you are in pain. Many biofeedback machines show an image of a balloon on their screens. As you breathe in and out, the balloon inflates and deflates. The screen displays your target rate, so you can tell if you are breathing too fast. 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. As with most skills, 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.
Permit me to digress a bit about the body sensor technology, such as that used in biofeedback. Body sensors, and the machines they talk to, are electronic devices. Like all electronics – from computers to smartphones – devices keep getting smaller and more powerful. Already there are sensors that attach to the skin and are so small you barely notice them. They send messages about your body through wireless signals to machines that interpret them.
Some experts predict that body sensors soon will have implications way beyond biofeedback. In particular, people with certain chronic illnesses may soon be constantly monitored, day and night. Examples of illnesses that may be constantly monitored include irregular heart rhythms and epilepsy. The monitoring will spot early warning signs and collect information that affects treatment.
It may sound a little like Big Brother, but it could become a valuable aid in diagnosing and treating disease. For some people, I think it will be lifesaving.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter