Today, most scientists agree that such high hopes were not
realistic. Research has demonstrated that biofeedback can
help in the treatment of many diseases and painful
conditions. It has shown that we have more control over
so-called involuntary bodily function than we once though
possible. But it has also shown that nature limits the extent
of such control. Scientists are now trying to determine just
how much voluntary control we can exert.
How is Biofeedback Used Today?
Clinical biofeedback techniques that grew out of the early
laboratory procedures are now widely used to treat an
ever-lengthening list of conditions. These include:
Migraine headaches, tension headaches, and many other types of pain
Disorders of the digestive system
High blood pressure and its opposite, low blood pressure
Cardiac arrhythmias (abnormalities, sometimes dangerous, in the rhythm of the heartbeat)
Raynaud's disease (a circulatory disorder that causes uncomfortably cold hands)
Paralysis and other movement disorders
Specialists who provide biofeedback training range from
psychiatrists and psychologists to dentists, internists, nurses,
and physical therapists. Most rely on many other techniques
in addition to biofeedback. Patients usually are taught some
form of relaxation exercise. Some learn to identify the
circumstances that trigger their symptoms. They may also
be taught how to avoid or cope with these stressful events.
Most are encouraged to change their habits, and some are
trained in special techniques for gaining such self-control.
Biofeedback is not magic. It cannot cure disease or by itself
make a person healthy. It is a tool, one of many available to
health care professionals. It reminds physicians that
behavior, thoughts, and feelings profoundly influence
physical health. And it helps both patients and doctors
understand that they must work together as a team.
Biofeedback places unusual demands on patients. They
must examine their day-to-day lives to learn if they may be
contributing to their own distress. They must recognize that
they can, by their own efforts, remedy some physical
ailments. They must commit themselves to practicing
biofeedback or relaxation exercises every day. They must
change bad habits, even ease up on some good ones. Most
important, they must accept much of the responsibility for
maintaining their own health.
How Does Biofeedback Work?
Scientists cannot yet explain how biofeedback works. Most
patients who benefit from biofeedback are trained to relax
and modify their behavior. Most scientists believe that
relaxation is a key component in biofeedback treatment of
many disorders, particularly those brought on or made
worse by stress.
Their reasoning is based on what is known about the effects
of stress on the body. In brief, the argument goes like this:
Stressful events produce strong emotions, which arouse
certain physical responses. Many of these responses are
controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the network
of nerve tissues that helps prepare the body to meet
emergencies by "flight or fight."