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What are the Different Types of Biofeedback Techniques?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are several common types of biofeedback techniques. Muscle tension is measured by electromyography, or EMG, thermal biofeedback determines skin temperature, and brain wave activity is the focus of neurofeedback or electroencephalography. Heart rate variability biofeedback aims to control a person’s heart rate. These biofeedback techniques are used to help train people to control body processes that are generally involuntary, such as skin temperature, muscle tension, and heart rate.

A biofeedback session can last from 30 minutes to one hour, and most patients will need more than one session to learn to control the targeted physical response. No matter what specific technique is being used, a therapist applies electrical sensors to the patient’s body or inserts thin needle electrodes. The sensors monitor and measure a person’s physiological state.

One of the most popular biofeedback techniques is EMG. EMG is a type of technique that measures the body’s muscle tension. Particularly tense muscles can be targeted for relaxation, thus reducing pain. The therapist monitors how well the patient is able to relax the target muscles and helps him or her develop more control over the process.

Thermal biofeedback is a technique that measures skin temperature. The therapist attaches sensors to the patient’s feet and hands to monitor skin temperature. A low skin temperature is often an indication of increasing stress. The patient is conditioned to practice relaxation techniques when his or her skin temperature drops. Galvanic skin response training is a variation of this technique.

Brain wave activity is the focus of neurofeedback. The goal is to learn to control the activity of the central nervous system. The therapist places sensors on the patient’s scalp to measure brain activity. When brain activity changes in the way desired by the patient, positive feedback is administered to the body. This feedback reward varies widely and can include everything from a dessert to music.

Heart rate variability is used to help patients learn to control their heat rates. This type of therapy can improve blood pressure and reduce stress. Patients are taught to breathe deeply and slowly in order to help keep their heart rates steady.

Medical experts are not in agreement about how or why biofeedback works, but conditions that are worsened by stress like chronic pain or high blood pressure may be treated with biofeedback techniques. Learning a biofeedback technique can be time consuming if many sessions are required. In addition, the therapy can be expensive if it is not covered by a patient’s health insurance.

Biofeedback techniques are noninvasive and can reduce or even eliminate the need for medications. As a result, it is a viable alternative treatment option for patients who cannot tolerate the medication indicated for their conditions or who are pregnant and cannot take certain drugs. Biofeedback is useful in part because it prompts patients to take control of their own health and recovery.

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