Biofeedback Machines: Evidence, How to Use & Best Products
Biofeedback is often used as a therapy to treat problems such as incontinence, high blood pressure, migraine and headaches in general. As well as some neurological disorders, anxiety and depression are also on the list of issues that biofeedback machines have been shown to be useful for.
Biofeedback therapy does not include the use of drugs, but machines that allow you to monitor your own biological responses, and as a result it may be useful for those who do not want to use drug-based therapy, or those that cannot, for example pregnant women.
Though biofeedback therapy, and research into its efficacy, is in many ways in its infancy, many more health providers and individual consumers are beginning to see its value, both as a result of its effectiveness and the positive testimony that it has received from users.
Essentially, what happens during a biofeedback session is that a doctor or someone else will attach electrodes to you to gain some ‘bio feedback’, or information about your biological reactions, e.g. your blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, temperature or levels of anxiety.
Then you can experiment, finding out what makes these readings higher or lower, e.g. expose yourself to stressors or practice relaxation techniques, in order that eventually you can control your response yourself, without the bio-feedback machine.
So in short this simple loop of monitoring your physiology and learning how to change it is biofeedback therapy.
In this article as well as reviewing some biofeedback machines for home use we will examine exactly how they work, answer some questions about safety and take a look at the scientific basis of the effectiveness of biofeedback.
If you don't have time to read the full article right now but want to check out the products, then just after the table of contents below is a brief list of our favorite biofeedback machines, or carry on reading for the full details.
The Muse Headband
Our top choice
HeartMath EmWave 2
Wild Divine Zen Journey System
Types of Biofeedback Therapy Machines
The three main types of biofeedback machines are:
Electromyography (EMG) biofeedback: This gauges muscle tension
Thermal biofeedback: measures your body temperature
Electroencephalography (EEG) feedback: measures the activity of your brain. Otherwise known as neurofeedback
Other types of biofeedback machines include:
Galvanic skin response training: measures the sweat on your skin
Heart variability biofeedback: takes your pulse
This information is then converted into readings that a patient can understand on a screen, which allows them to develop and use techniques that can control or minimize them.
Many biofeedback sessions include relaxation techniques that allow you to measure and then control your bodily functions, e.g. your heart rate or your blood pressure. These relaxation techniques include;
- Concentrating on your breathing
- Muscle relaxation techniques, e.g. tightening and relaxing certain muscle groups
- Focusing on certain images, e.g. a statue or happy image from your past to make you feel more relaxed
- Mindfulness meditation – Practicing mindfulness in order to increase your relaxation
You can even use games, for example video games, to focus your mind and gain relaxation during biofeedback sessions. For example, Neurofeedback (which is a type of biofeedback) uses video games and computers to help people control their neurological responses.
For example, a person may play a video game whilst hooked up to sensors. Then a therapist will help the patient understand their brain patterns and give them advice on how to change them. Thus the patient will be able to change their own biological rhythms.
The purpose of biofeedback is that, after you have received ‘feedback’ on your bodily functions (be that pain, temperature or anything else) you learn to consciously control them.
Some actually prefer biofeedback to pharmaceuticals, due the non-invasive nature of the treatment, whilst others use it concurrently with medication. Those who administer biofeedback for medical and psychological disorders must have the qualification to do so and are regulated just like doctors or psychiatrists.
Biofeedback can be provided in a healthcare setting by a trained professional. However, more and more people are trying biofeedback machines in their own homes due to the increasing evidence for their effectiveness, and below we will review some of the evidence and give some recommendations of biofeedback machines.
Biofeedback Machines for Home Use
As mentioned, more and more people are trying biofeedback therapy techniques at home using widely available biofeedback machines.
It wasn't very long ago that biofeedback would mean an expensive trip to a hospital or facility that offered expensive biofeedback services, but thanks for technological advancements, biofeedback machines are now affordable and portable enough to be sold at retail.
The question often asked at this point is, are biofeedback machines safe enough to use at home?
And the answer is fairly simple, the machines themselves function perfectly safely, but as with any piece of equipment you are using to try and change yourself (psychologically or physically) it could potentially be possible to use them wrongly, or at least in a way that wouldn't give you any benefit.
Overall if you are following the manufacturers guidance they are very unlikely to cause you any harm, and in fact compared to many types of interventions are extremely low risk.
What is the Evidence for Biofeedback?
Many think that there is so far inconclusive evidence on the effectiveness of biofeedback. However, some believe that biofeedback could be the next revolution in healthcare, and that could provide relief for a multitude of conditions, from Reynaud’s syndrome to constipation, such are the applications of biofeedback therapy.
Dr Josh Axe, a recognized authority in the areas of health and wellness, claims that biofeedback can be enormously successful in a number of ways. These include;
- Treats constipation – Biofeedback is well established for treating constipation. Trials have found that 70 to 80 percent of people who undergo biofeedback reduce their symptoms. The improvements appear to be made by teaching patients in biofeedback sessions to more easily control the muscles in their digestive system.
- Can Aid in Improving Heart Health - Studies suggest that biofeedback therapy helps improve control heart rate variability. One from the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine suggests that use of biofeedback by those with heart failure can actually remodel failing heart tissue, and help reduce the side effects which often accompany heart failure.
One study conducted in the Royal Free in London tested the effects of a video game that provided biofeedback on 40 patients with IBS, which is often related to stress.
This study found that it helped the patients relax ‘rapidly and effectively’, and helped with their symptoms. Another similar study published in Clinical Pediatrics found equally promising results for children with cystic fibrosis.
Some, though, are skeptical. One psychologist called Robb Mapou, is one of these. She says “I have not seen enough well-controlled, rigorous studies in most conditions for which it is recommended to show, definitively, that neurofeedback is effective.
I also think there are other therapeutic factors that can contribute to an individual’s outcome, such as discussing their problems with a therapist.”
Furthermore, the neuroscientist Michelle Harris Love, who is a researcher at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Centre in Washington, says “I believe it is applied in some situations where we do not have enough information on the cause of a disorder or how recovery happens”.
Rex Cannon, however, who is the former president of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research, is of a different opinion. He drew attention to the history of research on biofeedback and the strong empirical evidence for its efficacy.
For example, there are 100 peer-reviewed studies on neurofeedback and a meta-analysis of 10 studies on epilepsy. In the studies on epilepsy, though the patients had not responded to medication, it was found that neurofeedback significantly reduced seizures.
Evidence on the efficacy of biofeedback is often good. However, many agree that more research is needed in order to make conclusive statements.
Biofeedback for Anxiety
There is ample research to suggest that biofeedback can be useful in alleviating the symptoms of anxiety. For example, Psych Central suggests that, rather than the quick fix of medication, biofeedback allows people to get to know the symptoms and physical manifestations of their anxiety (quickening heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating) and thus gradually change them.
Biofeedback has been used in treating with some success panic disorder, PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder. For example, patients can be given biofeedback on their muscle tension, and can generally use relaxation techniques to reduce this tension both as a standalone treatment or as an adjunct to other forms of therapy, e.g. medication and CBT, and people can show improvement in as little as six sessions, though more complex cases may need further visits.
A review of the evidence by Rice et al. studied 45 GAD sufferers in a randomized control trial using 3 types of biofeedback (frontal EMG biofeedback, EEG alpha enhancement biofeedback, EEG alpha suppression biofeedback). Promisingly, they all showed significant improvements according to the DSM criteria for GAD, and this improvement was maintained after a six week checkup.
Likewise, Tabachnick also wrote a review of the efficacy of biofeedback, and concluded that biofeedback maybe effective, particularly for those who have physiological symptoms as a result of anxiety, and more research is needed in order to recognize that pharmaceutical treatment, whilst effective, is not the be all and end all: it has side effects, and it doesn’t treat the cause of the anxiety.
Biofeedback on the other hand, is a form of ‘unique skill-building’ therapy targeted to the patients particular needs, and thus it is a very exciting development in the field.
Laura Zera shared her secret about her experiences with neurotherapy (otherwise known as EEG). She said that after a few sessions, her therapist identified the areas of her brain that were showing less activity (and as a result may have been the sites of her anxiety). Thus, Laura and her therapist focused on these areas. Within 8 sessions, she experienced improvement. In her own words;
‘I had the unfamiliar sense that all the parts of my brain were at the party—and not a frat-house fiesta, either. This translated into a respite from the normal cognitive grind as my decision-making struggles abated and I experienced days of intense (for me) productivity.
I felt more certain about my actions in general—the analysis paralysis and second-guessing that had always been a big part of my “technique” quieted.’ As you can read, this shows that biofeedback can be very effective. These improvements also lasted, though she does so that the occasional top-up session would benefit.
Some even claim that biofeedback can be effective in treating anxiety in children. It can be used to help them learn about their symptoms from an early age, and thus control their anxiety whilst they are still young. This will be great news for parents who are worried about their little ones’ anxiety, and do not want to expose them to pharmaceuticals unnecessarily.
Biofeedback for Pain
Many people suffer from chronic pain, and it can be very debilitating. If you are one of these people, you will be very relieved to hear that biofeedback can also be effective in treating pain, though research is still in its infancy, and more is needed to fully confirm initial findings.
For example, one study trying to ascertain the usefulness of biofeedback in the pain caused by headaches came to the conclusion that biofeedback might be a useful adjunct to techniques of relaxation. However, they the researchers felt that biofeedback is costly and can take a such a long time to conduct that they were unsure whether they could recommend this treatment based on their cost/benefit calculations.
However, some have, after further research, come to a different conclusion. For example, one particularly common form of is back pain. 31 million Americans at any one time will be suffering from back pain, and the evidence for them is pretty promising.
One study of over 100 adults with chronic back pain found that biofeedback could be an effective complementary treatment to psychological pain management training. Others, including extremely reputable seats of scientific learning, have been even more optimistic about the usefulness of biofeedback for pain management.
The National Institute of Health reviewed the evidence on back pain in a meta-analysis, finding that biofeedback resulted in improvements that were maintained over a matter of months, and these improvements were stable and relatively predictable. The results were checked for bias, and it was found that they were valid. Therefore, the meta-analysis concluded that biofeedback can be effective in treating pain, both short and long term.
Of course, though you may not be able to completely manage your pain with biofeedback, it is something that the evidence shows can help (perhaps a great deal), and it can a fantastic supplement to other forms of treatment.
Biofeedback for Headaches
Migraines are often caused by things such as muscle tension, temperature changes, stress or other things, which can be treated and alleviated through biofeedback. You can track your biological rhythms and thus try to change them.
For example, if you can reduce muscle tension or increase the temperature of your hands, research has shown that you will experience fewer, less severe headaches.
In this way, you can use biofeedback to learn more about the reasons for your migraines occurring, and then act upon this knowledge to change your temperature, de-stress, or do whatever else may alleviate your symptoms, all without medication in a way that is pretty unobtrusive. This is why biofeedback is so powerful, perhaps especially when treating migraines.
What does the research say?
According to the National Institute of Health, biofeedback can be useful in reducing migraines. They cited research in which 37 patients were tested through a biofeedback regimen (the researchers used 3 different types of biofeedback combined with medication, and 70% of the patients found that their headaches reduced in frequency, and that this impact lasted for an average of 14 months. Thus they determined that biofeedback can be an effective form of treatment, and it can prevent the progression of migraine.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, biofeedback is very widely known to be effective for treating migraines, and its efficacy has been shown across decades of research.
According to this research, biofeedback techniques reduce headache frequency and severity by between 45 and 60%, which is as effective as some medications, propranolol for example, though without the side effects. The effect rises to 70% if you combine medication and biofeedback. You also must be aware that biofeedback does require time commitment, which is why the effect sizes are perhaps not even greater.
Likewise, a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology attempted to evaluate the effectiveness of biofeedback. They studied 36 children who were each given 4 sessions of biofeedback and a device to use at home. The researchers then assessed their progress.
Their results suggested that biofeedback could be effective in reducing migraines, and also suggested that stress management could be an effective form of treatment.
Biofeedback Therapy Machine Reviews:
The Muse Headband
One of the most popular and convenient neurofeedback machines is the Muse Headband. Many people find it difficult to access biofeedback in their area or it may be too expensive for them.
If that is the case, the Muse headband may be perfect for you. The Muse headband is a neurofeedback device and it is incredibly convenient. It works by sensing the electronic signals in your brain, and you can analyse this data using the muse app.
This app allows you to understand your brain signals, which are then represented as the weather: for example, if you are relaxed your brain signals from manifest themselves as calming wave sounds, whereas if you are less relaxed they will manifest as a turbulence storm.
This will allow you to begin to control your anxiety and your thoughts. One reviewer who analyzed the Muse in detailed gave their verdict and said that their main thoughts were;
- It is perhaps not as customized and profound as actually visiting a biofeedback therapist, so they would recommend this over the Muse.
- Helps you to manage your brain waves and become more focused.
- Helps you to live in the present moment, rather than always being lost in your thoughts.
- Incorporates others apps such as the ‘Muse Monitor’ app, which gives you extra features.
Other users have praised the additional features, and then app, have said that the device is portable and convenient, and have been impressed by its affordability.
HeartMath EmWave 2
This is a really simple but effective device that measures your pulse, your heart rate, and give you breathing exercises in order to give you a sense of ‘coherence’. When you are stressed out it will let you know in the form of a red light, and it will give you guidance to increase your ‘coherence’.
‘Coherence’ essentially means that your biological rhythms, for example your breathing and heart rate, are at one, and you can measure your coherence scores and try and better them in a competitive way.
The higher your coherence score, the better your state of mind and the more relaxed you are. This device is widely used in the US, for example when treating PTSD.
Many have claimed that the EmWave 2 is very effective. It can help you improve your health and your well-being in a variety or ways, including:
- Reduced anxiety
- Improving your mood mood
- Boosting cognitive performance
Many users have claimed that the EmWave has worked wonders for their anxiety and mood, and have given positive testimony on how it has helped them.
For example, one customer said that if you commit and use it as it is meant to be used, it could ‘change your life’ in the long term. Another said that it can change the way that you connect with your heart and see your health.
This device is also relatively affordable, and so if there is a chance that this can make a big impact then it seems to be a no-brainer.
Wild Divine Zen Journey Biofeedback Meditation System
Another option for home biofeedback are products made by Wild Divine (now known as Unyte). They make a range of biofeedback products, which often involve using games coupled with biofeedback in order to improve your mood and relaxation.
For example, one product is a video game that you can play in order to relax. The user must be hooked up to finger or ear senses, which measure heart rate and skin conductance level, indicators of anxiety, and the only way to navigate the video game was to relax.
Thus, playing the video game would help the gamer to control their own automatic responses. Bob Whitehouse of the Association of Applied Psychology explains that whilst it doesn't provide a coach, as in a clinical biofeedback session, "coaching" is actually provided by the games and the information received from the program.
As well as this, they also offer a platform called Wild Divine Online, in which Zen meditation is integrated into the biofeedback program, and you can actually meditate with Deepak Chopra as part have your treatment.
One reviewer of the Wild Divine machine says that it is a great choice for those who want to reduce stress and anxiety and become more in touch with themselves. They say that the software is good quality, and the system itself is well made. Furthermore, the customer service provided by the company is second to none.
There is some evidence to suggest that biofeedback can be effective for treating a variety of conditions. However, these studies have often been small and cannot provide us with completely conclusive evidence.
Many have begun to use biofeedback, though, because it offers medication free, natural treatment for a variety of conditions. Likewise, it allows you to take control of your own health and your own body, from the comfort of your own home.