My first introduction to biofeedback was in helping patients learn how to lower their blood pressure. I had heard of this therapy, but didn’t understand its many applications. As I explain in my most recent Ecomii Food and Health Blog post, Biofeedback: Evolving Mind-Body Therapy, the applications of biofeedback as an adjunct therapy in medical practice are rapidly evolving.
Among the conditions that I have been surprised that it was able to help include constipation and mild obstructive sleep apnea, a condition where the airway becomes blocked during sleep and the persons thus experiences multiple micro-awakenings throughout the night, leaving them feeling exhausted the next day. The standard of care for obstructive sleep apnea is known as CPAP, which stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” CPAP involves using either a face mask or nasal canula that pushes air into the airway to keep it open during sleep. For many patients, CPAP is very uncomfortable, and they are unable to tolerate it. In this one case, a male patient with mild obstructive sleep apnea was cured through the use of biodfeedback over the course of several sessions. This is by no means a study, and thus the results are not scientifically valid, but all science starts with empiric observations that are then put under the vigorous measures of a placebo-controlled trial. Obviously, the first treatment for anyone with sleep apnea, which is usually due to the collapse of tissue around the wind pipe in people who are markedly overweight, is to put them on a rigorous weight loss program. Sleep behavior modification, such as sleeping on one’s side with a special pillow, may also provide some benefits. However, I have seen patients with mild sleep apnea who are not excessively overweight as well. Therefore, looking into the potential role of biofeedback in cases of mild obstructive sleep apnea warrants investigation, and could result in significant health cost savings over the long-term. Untreated, obstructive sleep apnea could lead to heart arrythmias, pulmonary hypertension and congestive heart failure.
A biofeedback specialist can also help teach people who are not able to relax enough to sit through a meditation or yoga class learn how to relax their bodies and their minds. I often see this as a common complaint in my stressed and anxious patients — that they can’t relax enough to sit through a meditation. So biofeedback is basically a crash course in meditation for those that think they can’t meditate. In the end, meditation like exercise is a matter of practice. You can’t expect your muscles to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger after one day at the gym in the same way you can’t expect to be a skilled meditator in one week. Nevertheless, think of biofeedback as a bridge to a calmer self for those of you that cannot easily harness the “zen” within.