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Biofeedback is a type of mind-body therapy. It uses a simple machine to measure body functions that we aren’t normally aware of, such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, sweating and tightness in our muscles. You then learn how to use your mind to control these body functions without using the biofeedback machine.
In a biofeedback session, electrodes (small circles of metal, cloth or plastic) are attached to your skin to measure different body functions. This doesn’t hurt. The electrodes have wires that send information to a machine. The machine displays the level of the body function it is measuring and gives you feedback right away on your body’s functions. The machine may use flashing lights, an image or a sound to represent your body function.
A biofeedback therapist shows you how to work the machines. The therapist also teaches you relaxation strategies like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (tightening and then relaxing different muscle groups), guided imagery or mindfulness meditation. You learn to use these strategies to change your body’s responses, and the biofeedback machines give instant feedback on whether it’s working.
Types of biofeedback
Electromyography (EMG) biofeedback measures the tension in your muscles. Knowing about the tension in your muscles, and where it is, can help you learn to relax them.
Temperature, or thermal, biofeedback measures your skin temperature. When we are scared or anxious, our skin temperature is cool. When we are relaxed and happy, our skin temperature is warmer.
Galvanic skin response,or electrodermal response,biofeedback measures how damp or wet your skin is. Skin is normally dry when you are relaxed. But when you are anxious, your sweat glands are more active and there is more sweat on your skin.
Heart rate biofeedback measures how fast your heart is beating. When you are worried or anxious, your heart beats faster, and you have higher blood pressure.
Most biofeedback sessions last between 30 and 60 minutes. How many sessions you need depends on how quickly you learn to control your body’s responses. Biofeedback can be expensive if you need many sessions to master the techniques. It may not be covered by public or private healthcare.
You may need to be followed closely if you start using this therapy at home. Talk to your biofeedback therapist before you buy your own biofeedback equipment. Some battery-operated biofeedback machines sold for home use may not be reliable or give you the same results as professional machines.
Biofeedback as a complementary therapy
There is no evidence at this time that biofeedback can treat cancer itself. One of the most common uses of biofeedback is to help someone cope with anxiety and reduce stress. Studies have shown that biofeedback can teach people to be more aware of, and in better control of, their body’s responses when they are anxious.
Research has shown that biofeedback can also be helpful if you are trying to regain urinary and bowel function (continence) after cancer surgery. It can help your muscle-strengthening exercises work better.
Biofeedback is also useful in retraining muscles after injury. It can also help in teaching muscles to take over for other muscles that no longer work as they used to.
Side effects and risks of biofeedback
Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about trying biofeedback. Biofeedback is a safe technique when practised under the care of a certified biofeedback therapist. Some people have had dizziness or anxiety during biofeedback sessions.
Finding a therapist
Biofeedback therapists are certified by the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA). It’s important to see a qualified practitioner to learn how to use the machines and to understand the changes in your body.
I’m extremely grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society for funding my research with an Innovation Grant.
How can you stop cancer before it starts?
Discover how 16 factors affect your cancer risk and how you can take action with our interactive tool – It’s My Life! Presented in partnership with Desjardins.