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Biofeedback: it's all in the mind.


Every decade seems to have its own medical "breakthrough" that holds great promise for the future. The Age of Aquarius had seen phenomenal developments in electronics, and suddenly it seemed one could gain control over all manner of ills from warts to wetness by hooking oneself up to a TV screen with wires connected to strategic body sites. In the '70s, watching jiggly lines on the screen and performing specific mental and physical exercises soon became the rage, with mind over matter the clarion call. Inevitably, however, the bandwagon on which so many aficionados had jumped began emitting sour notes; most of the rest of us just wrote it off as another fad.

Fortunately, not everyone gave up on biofeedback training, and although it is certainly not the cure-all that some thought it would be, it is still being used to successfully treat clinical disorders that often defy more traditional forms of therapy. Basically, biofeedback involves the use of relatively simple electronic devices to monitor such specific bodily functions as pulse, blood pressure, skin temperature, muscle tone, etc. Electrical signals are then fed into a computer that visualizes them as lines on a TV screen, or converts them to audible tones that rise and fall as the monitored function changes. The patient then endeavors to influence the direction of the line or tone by performing various mental and physical activities.

Scientists developed biofeedback training from a series of lab experiments during the '60s in which rats learned to change their heart, blood pressure and salivation rates when a certain area of the brain was electrically stimulated. Other researchers attempted to duplicate the same results a decade or so later, but none could--including the researcher who had overseen the original experiments! Nonetheless, the resultant concept of biofeedback training had already proved successful in at least one clinical situation--the treatment of migraine and sever tension headaches.

Since then, biofeedback had been successfully used to treat certain muscle spasms arising from erratic nerve impulses; partial paralysis of some muscles; fecal and urinary incontinence in both children and adults; and Raynaud's syndrome, a disease most common in young women, in which the hands react painfully to the least bit of exposure to cold. Using biofeedback techniques, many patients have been able to develop a conditioned response that causes blood vessels in the hand to dilate, rather than constrict, when exposed to cold, thus eliminating the constant need to wear gloves. Although not cured, the patient can at least transfer a container from the refrigerator to the countertop without provoking an attack, although she may still need gloves to take packages from the freezer.

If you have a condition for which you believe biofeedback training to be useful, ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist. Don't fall for ads that feature biofeedback gadgets, nor for quacks who may advertise in the Yellow Pages, regardless of any supposed professional degrees they have. Biofeedback techniques are not learned in an hour, but a relatively short course (6 to 10 sessions) may provide sufficient skills, such as relaxation training and behavioral modification, to enable you to exercise mind over matter.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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