DEAR DOCTOR K: You've mentioned biofeedback as a treatment option for several conditions, but I still don't understand what it is. Could you explain?
DEAR READER: Biofeedback is a technique that helps you monitor and control your body's responses. By learning to control certain functions, you can improve your medical condition, relieve chronic pain, reduce stress, or improve your physical or mental performance.
During biofeedback training, a therapist attaches sensors to your body. The type and placement of sensors varies according to what is being measured. Sensors can detect changes in everything from your heart rate, skin temperature or muscle tension to your brain-wave patterns.
The machine then translates its measurements into a form of immediate "feedback." You might see the feedback as a blinking light, a beeping sound, a balloon or a graph. (I've put an illustration of what a biofeedback setup for urinary incontinence might look like on my website, AskDoctorK.com.)
Let's say your goal is to reduce neck, shoulder and upper back pain. Biofeedback can help you recognize when you tense the muscles in your back, neck, shoulders or head. It can help you relax them before you experience pain, or it can help you learn to relax muscles that are already in pain.
Or say you are learning to control your breathing when you are in pain. A balloon on the screen of the biofeedback machine may represent your breathing rate. You can learn to inflate and deflate the balloon at the target rate. As you gain control over the target body function, you'll be weaned off the machine.
After each session, you'll get an assignment to practice at home. Regular practice is essential to success.
Biofeedback is effective for certain types of urinary and fecal incontinence. It helps with anal pain related to excessive muscle contractions and constipation caused by problems with the muscles in the anus. It also helps people who suffer from Raynaud's phenomenon, tension headaches and fibromyalgia.
We're in the early stages of a technology related to biofeedback. Body sensors, and the machine they talk to, are electronic devices. Like all electronics -- from computers to smartphones -- devices keep getting smaller and more powerful. Already there are sensors that attach to the skin and are so small you barely notice them. They send messages about your body through wireless signals to machines that interpret them.
Some experts predict that people with certain chronic illnesses will soon be constantly monitored, day and night. The illnesses include irregular heart rhythms and epilepsy, for example. The monitoring will spot early warning signs and collect information that affects treatment.
It may sound a little like Big Brother, but it could become a valuable aid in diagnosing and treating disease. When the evidence rolls in, we'll know what type of constant monitoring has health benefits.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.