THURSDAY, Feb. 4, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Biofeedback used to be thought of as alternative therapy -- something that might help but wasn't considered a fully legitimized medical treatment.
U.S. soldiers returning from war now use biofeedback to help deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. People suffering from chronic pain often find relief in biofeedback. Even athletes are using biofeedback to gain better control over their bodies.
"It used to be considered a very radical type of therapy, but what we have found is, as the years have gone by, it has become more and more mainstream," said John Arena, lead psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta, Ga., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at the Medical College of Georgia and president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. "It now is considered part of regular medicine, actually."
With biofeedback, someone is strapped to sensors that provide real-time readings of internal bodily processes, such as muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature and brain-wave activity. They then are taught strategies by which they can gain better control over those processes, which in turn can help them achieve certain health goals.
"It's like using computers to listen to your body and then displaying that information so you can see it and use your own volition to change it," explained Carmen Russoniello, an associate professor and director of a biofeedback center at East Carolina University. "We think of this as internal exercise, much like the physical exercise you perform at the gym. It's done in the head instead of the muscles."
Students at Iowa State University now have access to a Biofeedback Center to help them deal with stress, said Todd Pietruszka, a staff psychologist with the college's Student Counseling Service.
The college students can sit in a quiet, darkened room, wearing noise-cancelling headphones and sensors on their fingertips that measure their heart rate and skin conductance. They practice relaxation techniques while watching real-time graphics showing them how their body is responding. That way, they can see which techniques lead to actual relaxation.
"You can see that even though the noise is still in your head, you have been able to relax a little," Pietruszka said. "You notice for 40 seconds you were able to lower your heart rate, for example. For an instant, you get it."
Once users of biofeedback learn what works to alter their body's processes, they can practice until they have mastered the techniques. They then are armed with tools that can be used whenever they need them.
Arena said that biofeedback has been found to be incredibly useful in helping people with chronic pain. Whether the pain stems from headaches, lower back pain or some other painful problem, they can use biofeedback to master relaxation and meditation techniques to ease the pain, he said.
People with tension headaches, for instance, learn how to relax their bodies and release stress. "With headaches, we get around a 50 to 60 percent reduction in a person's overall headache activity," Arena said.
Anxiety also can be helped by biofeedback, he said. People with anxiety disorders often have high levels of muscle tension that are caused by, and then contribute to, their anxiety. But through biofeedback, he explained, they can learn to relax their muscles and break that vicious cycle.
Though inexpensive at-home biofeedback kits are on the market now, Russoniello recommends that someone trying the therapy for the first time find a qualified biofeedback specialist who has been certified by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America.
"You really need the assistance of an expert who can tie together the autonomic nervous system, stress, its impact on you and how it affects your physiology," he said. "You need somebody who understands the equipment. You should go through three treatments before using a home device to continue that practice."
The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback has more on biofeedback.