Biofeedback is a treatment technique in which people are
trained to improve their health by using signals from their
own bodies. Physical therapists use biofeedback to help
stroke victims regain movement in paralyzed muscles.
Psychologists use it to help tense and anxious clients learn
to relax. Specialists in many different fields use biofeedback
to help their patients cope with pain.
Chances are you have used biofeedback yourself. You've
used it if you have ever taken your temperature or stepped
on a scale. The thermometer tells you whether you're
running a fever, the scale whether you've gained weight.
Both devices "feed back" information about your body's
condition. Armed with this information, you can take steps
you've learned to improve the condition. When you're
running a fever, you go to bed and drink plenty of fluids.
When you've gained weight, you resolve to eat less and
sometimes you do.
Clinicians reply on complicated biofeedback machines in
somewhat the same way that you rely on your scale or
thermometer. Their machines can detect a person's internal
bodily functions with far greater sensitivity and precision
than a person can alone. This information may be valuable.
Both patients and therapists use it to gauge and direct the
progress of treatment.
For patients, the biofeedback machine acts as a kind of
sixth sense which allows them to "see" or "hear" activity
inside their bodies. One commonly used type of machine,
for example, picks up electrical signals in the muscles. It
translates these signals into a form that patients can detect:
It triggers a flashing light bulb, perhaps, or activates a
beeper every time muscles grow more tense. If patients
want to relax tense muscles, they try to slow down the
flashing or beeping.
Like a pitcher learning to throw a ball across a home plate,
the biofeedback trainee, in an attempt to improve a skill,
monitors the performance. When a pitch is off the mark, the
ballplayer adjusts the delivery so that he performs better the
next time he tries. When the light flashes or the beeper
beeps too often, the biofeedback trainee makes internal
adjustments which alter the signals. The biofeedback
therapist acts as a coach, standing at the sidelines setting
goals and limits on what to expect and giving hints on how
to improve performance.
The Beginnings of Biofeedback
The word "biofeedback" was coined in the late 1960s to
describe laboratory procedures then being used to train
experimental research subjects to alter brain activity, blood
pressure, heart rate, and other bodily functions that
normally are not controlled voluntarily.
At the time, many scientists looked forward to the day
when biofeedback would give us a major degree of control
over our bodies. They thought, for instance, that we might
be able to "will" ourselves to be more creative by changing
the patterns of our brainwaves. Some believed that
biofeedback would one day make it possible to do away
with drug treatments that often cause uncomfortable side
effects in patients with high blood pressure and other