Using Biofeedback at Home – 5 Devices for Better Health
Before the advent of the smartphone and portable biofeedback devices, biofeedback therapy was restricted to medical centers, hospitals, and clinics that used highly expensive and specialized equipment.
Nowadays, those interested in the medical and non-medical uses of biofeedback can reap the wide-ranging benefits of this mind/body tool in the privacy of their own homes. In this article, we will discuss the benefits of biofeedback and some of the currently available devices that allow access to biofeedback at home.
What is biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a mind/body technique that uses biosensors to enable patients to consciously control the state of their autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS regulates involuntary bodily processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, muscle tension, skin conductance, and brain-wave frequency. In biofeedback, these processes can be measured by a multitude of sensors, including:
- Electromyograph (EMG): Detects muscle tension and activity
- Electroencephalograph (EEG): Measures brainwave frequencies
- Electrodermograph (EDG): Detects skin conductance/electrodermal activity, a measure of sweat gland activity
- Electrocardiograph (ECG): Measures heart rate and how it varies in time
- Photoplethysmograph (PPG): Detects blood volume changes to derive measures of heart rate, heart rate variability, and respiratory rate
- Pneumograph: Measures respiratory movements
- Thermistor: Measures changes in skin temperature
Using electrical sensors, biofeedback devices detect and translate these physiological processes into feedback signals that can be perceived directly and understood. This real-time feedback is usually an auditory or visual cue, which may be displayed to the user as an image, video, sound, or flash of light.1
Biofeedback is generally used to enhance the user’s awareness and sensitivity to their own physiological states. This awareness makes it possible to shift these states into healthier ways of functioning to improve health, performance, and overall well-being.
Typically, biofeedback is facilitated by practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathwork, guided imagery, and body scanning. When these are practiced together with immediate feedback from the sensors, it gives you accurate insight into how the techniques are shifting your physiology towards a more balanced state. Over time, this process enables the development of self-regulation skills that lead to enduring positive changes in physiology and behavior.
What are the benefits of biofeedback?
The use of biofeedback at home is particularly effective in managing stress. This is because the devices are capable of presenting information that indicates the balance between parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system tone. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest-and-digest” branch of the nervous system. Its engagement is associated with relaxed physiological states such as slow heart rate, deeper respiration, increased blood flow, and lower blood pressure.
On the other hand, the sympathetic (“fight-or-flight”) nervous system is activated in states of stress, both acute and chronic. This branch of the nervous system effectively mobilizes the body for action by increasing heart rate, spiking blood pressure, quickening respiration, constricting blood vessels, and inhibiting digestion. While helpful in times of crisis, this response too often goes haywire by staying perpetually revved up despite the absence of salient threats. Biofeedback therapy helps to combat this irregular response, shifting the mind and body toward an optimal parasympathetic response.
Medical uses of biofeedback
By controlling the fight-or-flight response and encouraging a relaxation response, biofeedback can be used to help manage a variety of conditions caused or exacerbated by stress. This includes:
- Abdominal pain
- Raynaud’s disease
- Digestive issues
- Excessive sweating
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome2
In addition, EEG biofeedback (neurofeedback) therapy can help patients generate more beneficial patterns of brain activity. One brain-wave frequency that is encouraged in neurofeedback training is alpha waves, which are associated with relaxation and an idling brain. Overall, self-regulation of brain function via neurofeedback has been shown to be useful for conditions and disorders such as:
- Mood disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Learning Disabilities
- Brain injuries
- Tourette syndrome3
Non-medical uses of biofeedback
In this era of big data and the quantified self, biofeedback devices are increasingly being used by healthy individuals for personal improvement and performance optimization. For example:
- Athletes are using biofeedback devices to optimize athletic performance, prevent injury, and gain an edge in competitive sports.4
- Artists, musicians, and actors have used neurofeedback alpha-theta training to increase access to flow states, assist creativity, as well as enhance self-awareness, focus, and alertness.5 6
- Meditators are increasingly using neurofeedback protocols to develop concentration, eliminate mind wandering, and ultimately upgrade their meditation practice.7
Additionally, some people use biofeedback to assist with optimizing their wellness and improving their general well-being. No matter the benefits you are after, biofeedback is an attractive option in your health and wellness toolkit because it is non-invasive, doesn’t involve the use of medications, and is free from any serious side effects.
Why use biofeedback devices at home?
Advancements in sensor technology size and battery efficiency have led to the development of a wide variety of biofeedback devices for home use in recent years. These home devices are more advantageous compared to clinical biofeedback therapy for a number of reasons.
Medical-grade biofeedback machines designed for clinical settings can have price tags ranging from $6,000 to $15,000 per device.8 These devices maintain high accuracy and can measure a wide range of physiological signals, but they lack practicality. For one, they require the patient to attend multiple office visits and remain stationary throughout each session. In contrast, consumer-grade home biofeedback devices are designed to be highly usable in everyday contexts on your own schedule. For wearables specifically, these devices trade accuracy for convenience and usability, all the while incorporating low-profile or even fashionable designs.
In addition, home biofeedback devices are generally more cost-effective, being anywhere from $20 to above $1000 out of pocket depending on the included features. The cost-effectiveness increases the accessibility of treatment for many more individuals that can benefit from biofeedback. This is especially the case considering that not all insurance currently covers biofeedback therapy in clinical settings.
It’s important to note, however, that not all home biofeedback devices are created equal. Always conduct extensive research on the biofeedback device you’re considering before purchasing. In the next section, we will discuss the major types of biofeedback devices used at home, and how some of these can help improve your health and wellness.
Wearable biofeedback devices
Home biofeedback devices can be separated into wearable devices and non-wearable units. Wearable devices include bands, rings, straps, patches, headbands, shoe insoles, and more. The popularity of these devices continues to grow as a result of their relatively low cost and versatility. Let’s take a closer look at two of the most widely used wearable devices and unpack what they are capable of doing.
The most popular wearables on the market, smartwatches often contain gyroscopes and accelerometers to monitor movement patterns, physical strain, and impact forces. These biosensors help to identify risk factors for injury and allow users to adjust their technique while performing fitness activities. They also commonly measure heart rate, heart rate variability, and respiratory rate with photoplethysmography or ECG. Temperature sensors and galvanic skin response biosensors can provide additional feedback on your emotional state.9
These devices interface with mobile applications via Bluetooth, then present the physiological information in an easy-to-understand manner. This includes, but is not limited to, visual displays of resting heart rate, amount of calories burned, steps taken, and time spent exercising. By integrating heart and physical activity measures, the device software’s proprietary algorithms can calculate the user’s personal activity scores, which can be trended over time.
2. EEG headbands
In the realm of neurofeedback, commercially available headbands are commonly used at home to improve mental states and optimize cognitive performance. These devices contain 4-6 EEG electrodes that measure brain activity and use real-time feedback in the form of sound to signal whether the user’s mind is calm or wandering. The devices utilize a reward system that provides positive reinforcement to the user when they have nudged their brainwaves in a more optimal direction.
EEG headbands are often used in conjunction with meditation to improve stress resilience and relaxation. Some EEG-based wearables provide cognitive feedback and training to improve focus, emotional control, relaxation, and attention.9
Portable biofeedback devices
Portable biofeedback devices are non-wearable units that are suitable for home use. The biosensors on these devices plug into a computerized unit that can feedback information on an LCD display. Other portable devices plug into your computer, where the included software displays real-time charts and graphics of measurements such as heart rate, heart rate variability, and coherence. Like wearables, many of these devices are also linked to mobile applications.
3. Handheld GSR biofeedback
Handheld galvanic skin response biofeedback devices measure sweat gland activity as a proxy for relaxation levels. These devices may use a tone as the feedback signal that is output to headphones. When tension increases, the pitch of the tone increases, and when tension decreases, the pitch of the tone decreases. More recent portable GSR models use finger sensors that plug directly into the microphone port of your smartphone or tablet. Feedback may be given using “smart bulbs,” which change colors or brightness depending on your level of relaxation.
Additionally, galvanic skin response can also be used to help individuals determine their best options for wellness. The ZYTO Hand Cradle, for example, measures GSR responses to a variety of digital signatures that represent actual items, such as organs, environmental factors, and supplements. This device can also be used at home with the ZYTO Remote scanning feature.
4. Portable EMG biofeedback
Home EMG biofeedback devices are typically 1-2 channel units that record muscle activity using electrodes placed on the skin. These devices are capable of monitoring and treating a wide variety of muscular problems, including incontinence, pelvic floor problems, chronic pain, and physical impairments due to injury or disease.
EMG-based home biofeedback has been shown to be highly effective for pelvic floor training to treat incontinence, with studies showing success rates between 68-85%.10 11 Some of these home EMG devices also feature channels for neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES). NMES sends electrical impulses to select muscle groups and is used for neuromuscular rehabilitation.
5. Interactive video game biofeedback
Interactive video games that incorporate biofeedback are increasingly used in home environments to improve mental health and teach self-regulation skills. Some of these computer-based programs use finger sensors that measure skin conductance, pulse, and heart rate variability, while others use multichannel EEG. Oftentimes these biofeedback video games incorporate a competitive “relax-to-win” scheme in a player-versus-player environment to keep motivation and interest high.12
These interactive biofeedback games go beyond teaching stress management and relaxation skills. Competitive computer biofeedback games have been used successfully to teach relaxation to 40 patients with irritable bowel syndrome, with 64% of patients continuing to use the technique according to a long-term follow-up.13
Overall, biofeedback video games are an engaging way to obtain the myriad benefits that biofeedback has to offer. Future biofeedback games are destined to improve in their sophistication, incorporating more physiological measures and immersion.
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