What if you could ease chronic pain, lower your blood pressure and improve other health issues simply with the power of your mind?


Proponents of an alternative therapy called biofeedback believe that you can train yourself to do just that, with the help of a physical therapist and electronic equipment that monitors breath rate, perspiration, skin temperature, blood pressure and heartbeat.


The National Center of Complementary Medicine and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) considers biofeedback a mind-body therapy that can offer benefits similar to hypnosismeditation and prayer. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, researchers aren't sure exactly how or why biofeedback works, but most people who benefit from the therapy have conditions that appear to be brought on or worsened by stress.


Migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, tension headaches, anorexia nervosa, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and urinary incontinence are among the health conditions that can reportedly benefit from biofeedback therapy. Some people choose to try biofeedback therapy instead of drugs because of the lack of side effects.


"Biofeedback makes the invisible visible, the undocumented documented,” explains Dr. Erik Peper, Ph.D., professor at the Institute for Holistic Health Studies in San Francisco, Calif. “It's like a physiological mirror with which you can learn to control your own body and health. It's a learning strategy by which people learn how to change their own physiology. We live in a world that's often out of control. Biofeedback gives the control back to the person. With biofeedback therapy, you can learn to shift breathing patterns and other involuntary bodily processes that you're generally unaware of. Mind and body are connected, that's the key. Every thought, every emotion has a body response, a body change. And, every body change has an effect on your thoughts and emotions. This approach is based on scientific documentation to treat disorders like urinary incontinence, tension headaches, migraines and attention deficit disorder."


In a biofeedback therapy session, electrodes are attached to your skin to monitor bodily processes that normally happen involuntarily. The therapist will lead you through relaxation techniques and mental exercises that can have a calming effect. You can see how these exercises affect bodily processes like blood pressure and heartbeat on the monitoring equipment, which translates the measurements into a sound, a visual meter that varies in brightness or lines moving across a grid on a computer screen.


Each biofeedback therapy session generally lasts 30 minutes to one hour, and the number of sessions required varies based on the condition being treated. In addition to these sessions, biofeedback therapists will often teach the patient mental exercises and techniques to be done at home.


Studies have found that biofeedback therapy is an effective treatment for urinary incontinence, helping women learn how to control and strengthen pelvic floor muscles. Research has also found that biofeedback reduces blood pressure in individuals with mild hypertension, possibly through reducing stress. The Cancer Institute at Stanford Medicine notes that while biofeedback does not appear to affect cancer cells, it can reduce the severity and frequency of headaches and chronic pain. Numerous other studies cited by the University of Maryland Medical Center have seen positive results with a range of health problems.


Biofeedback therapy is a learning tool that may help a patient gain control over certain health issues. When deciding whether this alternative treatment is right for you, be sure to seek the advice of your health care provider.


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