Chartered Physiotherapist, Jane Appleyard gives us an overview of biofeedback and how it can help identify your pelvic floor muscles for better exercises.
A treatment often promoted in the world of health, biofeedback has been proven to be a powerful, drug-free treatment with no known side effects.
It is a really effective way of treating a diverse number of health issues and is often described as a ‘mind-body’ technique that involves the use of sight, sound or touch to enable us to gain control over our bodily functions.
Practically everyone has heard about the problem people experience when they visit their doctor’s surgery for a blood pressure check up. Feeling stressed or worried about the result causes our blood pressure to rise when sitting in the waiting room but it’s hard to know what to do to break this cycle.
What if we had some strategies to prevent this happening? What if we were able to perform some simple techniques that we’d not just practised but had proven to ourselves to be really effective!
Essentially that is exactly what biofeedback can help us achieve and it is used to treat conditions such as chronic pain, headaches, anxiety, incontinence, bedwetting and may help to reduce high blood pressure.
It is unclear exactly why biofeedback can be so effective but research shows that it can teach us how to relax – this is obviously going to help a lot of conditions that are related to, or become worse with stress.
We’ve all had the experience of being woken by a strange noise in the night. Our bodies respond quickly to the stress, making our heart rate speed up, our blood pressure rise, increasing our rate of breathing, and making our muscles tense so we’re ready to fight or climb out of the bedroom window!
There are times when we need to be able to respond to stressful situations but it can be a problem if minor life events trigger this type of response such as sitting in a doctor’s waiting room.
Once we are able to recognise these changes as they occur, the challenge is finding a way of controlling them – this is when we can turn to biofeedback.
How does biofeedback work?
Treatments usually take place in a clinic environment and involve attaching sticky pads or ‘electrodes’ to specific areas of our bodies. These electrodes measure different functions such as heart rate, muscle tension, breathing rate, skin temperature or blood pressure.
By viewing a screen image or listening to audio feedback, the client and therapist are able to monitor changes in these vital functions. During a biofeedback session, different relaxation techniques can be practised until we become experts at recognising and ‘switching off’ the stress responses.
An overview of biofeedback, physiotherapy and treatments
Physiotherapists usually use biofeedback for both assessment and treatment of muscle disorders using both simple techniques or more sophisticated equipment.
The three senses of sight, sound and touch are mostly used during biofeedback therapy sessions.
One of the reasons gyms, dance studios and physiotherapy treatment rooms have mirrors or mirrored walls is because sight improves awareness of our body’s patterns of movement.
How often do we begin to work at our computers in a ‘correct’ position only to find an hour later we’re slumped over, the muscles in our necks have become tense and we have a headache? This is because over a period of time it’s common to lose perception of our body’s alignment.
After practicing a movement repeatedly and checking that it is performed in the correct way, the brain learns better body awareness. Eventually biofeedback is no longer required and we can assess ourselves as to whether our body is tense and know exactly which strategies we can use to induce relaxation. We can also learn the best methods of activating muscle groups that are weak or poor performers.
Different types of biofeedback equipment are available to evaluate muscle activity. This type of therapy is particularly useful to help clients ‘find’ muscles that can’t easily be seen such as the pelvic floor.
One of the most popular forms of biofeedback is to measure the electrical activity in muscle fibres using surface electrodes and this is called EMG (electromyography).
Sophisticated clinic based units as well as hand-held home devices display an image of the activity and they can also be set up to produce a sound, enabling us to use our senses of sight and hearing to;
- Assess muscle function
- Measure if there is an increase in tension, weakness or a lack of co-ordination
- Monitor progress over a period of time, measuring improvement in performance
- View the muscle’s ability to relax and release
- Encourage a muscle to work more effectively
Once a muscle has been assessed and an overall picture of the condition is understood, a plan of treatment will be devised.
Biofeedback can then be used to enable clients to learn and perfect the techniques they need to improve their symptoms.
- Diaphragmatic breathing or ‘abdominal breathing’ is a really effective way to decrease stress levels. It is the way we breathe when we are asleep, digesting food and at rest.
- Relaxation of specific muscles can be taught by working through guided programmes of contraction followed by release.
- Mindfulness, which involves taking control of our attention and thoughts.
- Imagery is a technique where we use our imaginations to picture a place, event or person that makes us feel happy, peaceful and relaxed.
- Specific graduated training techniques to improve a muscle’s performance.
Biofeedback may be a great treatment option to explore further. It certainly enables physiotherapists to empower clients, allowing them to self manage or cure a variety of conditions.
de Smit Medical has been working alongside Chartered Physiotherapist, Jane Appleyard to create a blog for advice and thoughts on a range of topics relating to the pelvic floor. Return to our blog for more articles and videos.
Jane Appleyard has over 30 years' experience as a Chartered Physiotherapist and specialises in pelvic health. You can read Jane's bio here.