Doctors generally have been suitably impressed by biofeedback techniques. Carefully controlled trials have shown that blood pressure is so reduced by the intelligent use of biofeedback that medication often can be reduced or even eliminated. Similarly migraine attacks have been reduced in frequency and severity by means of this technique. Although biofeedback started medically as a non-drug remedy for high blood pressure, physicians have found it useful in controlling certain over-fast heart rate problems – the so-called tachycardias and heart arrhythmias.
As usual, once the medical profession obtains a new therapeutic toy they are not slow to devise uses for it. It is possible to combine biofeedback techniques with other techniques, for instance those that measure the electrical impulses which originate in the brain. Already it has been possible to identify an abundance of a special type of brain activity called alpha rhythm during relaxation procedures, which is associated with a feeling of tranquillity and calm. Similar applications of biofeedback have led to the discovery that relaxation response is useful in the control of epilepsy, and in one small clinical trial considerable reductions in the number of epileptic seizures experienced occurred in epileptics using biofeedback relaxation response techniques.
One particular type of illness that does not respond very well to medication generally is peripheral artery disease. This is a condition that often occurs in the legs, producing a variety of complaints including one called intermittent claudication in which the victim can only walk for a very limited period before he has to stop and rest. Angina is a similar peripheral artery disease affecting the arteries of the heart (see Post 13).
The possibility of using biofeedback systems for altering blood flow is receiving attention and could prove useful.
A further modification of the biofeedback technique involves changes in skin temperature rather than skin electricity. A machine has been developed that uses this thermal measurement, and subjects can be trained by biofeedback means and the relaxation response to increase the temperature of their hands and limbs. This can be a very useful facility in the well-known cold illnesses, notably Reynaud’s disease and chilblains. One type of migraine is characterized by cold hands occurring during an attack, and this particular problem can be alleviated by means of biofeedback training.
To what extent should we incorporate biofeedback into our mastery of the relaxation response? Probably not at all unless we are rich or enthusiastic enough to buy a biofeedback system for home use and learn how to use it to our advantage. There is, however, a biofeedback research society, and in hospitals and clinics in certain parts of the world biofeedback is very popular – notably in the United States where asthma, tension headaches, speech therapy, muscle tics and spasms, drug and alcohol habituation and epilepsy are commonly combated by using biofeedback techniques. In some centres gastrointestinal problems, including hiatus hernia and incontinence, are also being helped by biofeedback techniques.
Doubtless the hospital and clinic setting can use biofeedback as a useful therapeutic tool in many ways. But the relaxation response can be mastered easily in most cases by using the techniques we have described and without the need of such electronic hardware.