Good Alternatives: The Benefits of Nontraditional Medicine
Using sensors or electrodes hooked up to monitors, biofeedback lets patients "see" their physiological responses to things like stress or pain. They can then learn to adjust and control their bodily processes, such as heart rate or blood pressure, to get the desired result (such as lower blood pressure). "If you learn to recognize the sensations of relaxation, for example, you can learn to stay in a more relaxed state," explains Daniel Hoch, MD, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
What we know for sure:
- It can relieve headaches and other pain. A review of 55 studies looking at biofeedback for migraines concluded it was effective. "We found that 70 percent of people achieve at least a 50 percent reduction in the frequency of their migraines. The effects last for at least a year after treatment has stopped," says Deborah Stokes, PhD, owner of the Better Brain Center in Alexandria, Virginia. She has studied the effects of neurofeedback (which focuses on brain waves) on headaches.
- It can treat urinary incontinence. Patients focus on contracting the muscles that control flow and have about a 70 percent improvement in symptoms on average. Research shows it's as effective or more effective than pelvic floor exercises, pelvic floor stimulation, vaginal cones, and medication.
- It can relieve anxiety and stress. Several well-controlled, randomized studies have shown that biofeedback is as helpful for reducing anxiety as progressive relaxation or meditation, because it elicits the relaxation response.
- It can reduce blood pressure. Biofeedback can help patients learn to lower their blood pressure, although it doesn't work for everyone every time.
Promising new research:
Biofeedback and its cousin neurofeedback, which focuses more on the brain while teaching patients to relax or respond to certain situations, may help control ADHD, improve sleep, and even help epileptics control seizures. "The idea is that if they spend some time every week trying to learn to generate certain frequencies of brain waves, they can reduce the likelihood of having a seizure," says Dr. Hoch.
It worked for me:
"I've battled anxiety and terrible insomnia for years and have tried therapy and medications to cure it. But nothing helped me that much. I typically wouldn't get more than three to four hours of sleep a night for days, then I'd get so tired I'd sleep for 12 hours straight. Sleeping pills didn't work, so when a friend recommended neurofeedback, I thought, 'Why not give it a try?' I started it in April this year, and after the seventh session I slept through the night. I've been getting seven or eight hours of sleep fairly regularly since then. Neurofeedback trained me to put my mind in a relaxed state. Now my anxiety level is lower than it's been in years, too."
-LeAnne Kline, 37, Venice, California